James Lawton: Let's hope our offensive, overpaid footballers have been watching the Games

As football kicks off, it provokes in many a weary resignation, if not a degree of revulsion


When they snuff out the Olympic fire tomorrow night, as unfortunately they must, a brief but solemn prayer will surely be appropriate. Ideally, it will express the hope that all the joy and excitement that have touched so many people here and across the world these past two weeks will not disappear along with the flame.

It is a cry given a sharp edge of urgency by tomorrow's curtain opening of a new football season by the two richest clubs in the land, champions Manchester City and Chelsea. If the Olympics have provided the uplift of new horizons, few need reminding of quite what the money-drenched national game has come to represent.

This is in the most desperate contrast to so many of the values we have seen so superbly expressed on the running and cycle tracks, the rowing lake and the swimming pool. Here we have seen the most thrilling competitive values and so many moments of unforgettable grace. By shocking comparison, as football kicks off, it provokes in many a weary resignation, if not a degree of revulsion.

It is to anticipate an unending pursuit of advantage, however dubiously achieved. It is to expect examples of greed and cheating and malign attitudes in an unending flow. It is to think of racism trials and Twitter rows and an overwhelming sense that if the game has a dominant motivation, it is the pursuit of unbridled wealth and the barest understanding of the responsibilities it might bring.

We can argue all day about the ethics of the Olympic movement, how so much preferment and privilege are compressed into the concept of the "Olympic Family" and its corporate cousins, and how much better it would have been to spend all the billions on hospitals and schools.

But none of this touches another reality, one that has been reinforced by each day of new and compelling action.

It has brought the certainty of fierce competition and the brilliance of individual and team performance, no doubt, but it has also been irresistible in the way it has so powerfully reminded us of what sport can be when it is played in a certain spirit.

When, for example, it is not irreparably scarred by the cheating and the rancour that have become so deep-seated among many of the multimillionaire and, on important occasions, too-often-mediocre footballers.

Some are holding out the hope that these Olympics of Usain Bolt and Jessica Ennis, Michael Phelps and Sir Chris Hoy and Mo Farah may just make some of the plutocrats of the Premier League stop and think about who they are and how they have come to be seen in the eyes of ordinary people.

This is something of a reach, though, when you consider the detachment of the footballer's life in his mansion and the largesse which will surely flow down from the latest mega TV deal. But when you see the style with which Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time, has dealt with the inevitable decline in his powers, you are still inclined to ask: why not?

Why not take some lead from the impact of these Olympics, which has largely been one of pride and happiness? That, certainly, was the strongest sense while standing in the rain at Stratford International after Hoy's ultimate moment of Olympic glory.

If there was an extraordinary buzz, there was still an inevitable question: will we feel like this when the football starts?

It is haunting speculation when you remember the explosion of emotion that came in the Olympic Stadium last weekend when Ennis, after two days of magnificent effort and superb self-control, won her gold along with Farah and Greg Rutherford. It makes you trawl back through all the days since Danny Boyle's opening ceremony invited the nation to consider from where it came and to where it might be heading.

No doubt some will continue to insist we are discussing a circus, some great and hugely expensive distraction, but they will not have been in the stadium when Ennis was the perfect vision of a young woman who had slaved to draw on every last scrap of her talent and was now receiving her reward.

The truth is that there were such stories in every corner of these Olympics. In the judo hall, Kayla Harrison, from Ohio, won gold from under the shadows of terrible abuse by her coach. He was sent to prison for 10 years and she was at the point of collapse because of "guilt". But these Olympics gave her the chance to become whole again – as they have for more than 10,000 competitors.

If down the years the Games have been besmirched by drugs and corruption, they have also shown extraordinary powers of redemption and never more dramatically than in London 2012. Bolt has become the world's most popular and charismatic sportsman in an event that not so long ago was dying on its chemically enhanced feet.

What these Games have also done is define so vividly the narrowness of the line between winning and losing. Yet, in so many cases, the athletes have dealt with the latter development not as the thief of their hopes but a reminder of all of sport's – and life's – possibilities.

Arguably, the most impressive example was provided by cyclist Victoria Pendleton, a heroine of the Beijing Olympics four years ago who took her leave of Olympic sport fighting tears of disappointment. Twice she had suffered killing official judgements which many experts considered brutal and quite arbitrary.

The second one wiped out the advantage she had gained, by an exquisitely fine margin, in the first of her scheduled three races against her ferocious Australian rival Anna Meares. However, there was no catfight, no mewling, and certainly none of the mayhem produced by Joey Barton of Queen's Park Rangers at the end of the last football season, just a brief hug after a touching of hands as Meares made her victory lap.

Pendleton, 31, examined her spoils and found they were considerable: two Olympic gold medals and nine world titles. There was another prize, too, and it took her to the heart of these Olympics. It was the one that goes to those who show they can be strong at a broken place.

It is the greatest glory of these Olympics that have so powerfully reasserted the power of sport to touch the lives of so many.

Football, of course, exerts similar influence not every four years but week by week. The extent of its failure to ignite the kind of flame that has burned so brightly in east London has maybe never before been so harshly illuminated. Surely, it needs to find a cauldron of its own.

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