It's hard to imagine anything further removed from the Olympic ideal than the orgy of commercial sponsorship which takes place under its name every four years, along with a series of drugs scandals. Quite how the Athenians and their athletic culture got by without sponsorship from Coca-Cola, I can't imagine - and just think of silly old Pheiddipides, running all that way to bring news of the victory at Marathon without first doing a deal with Nike. Of course no Olympics is complete without a row about money and the 2012 London games are already doing magnificently on that front, with a cost over-run of £900m and more than five years to go.
Last week, a Labour-dominated committee of MPs made a scathing attack on the Government's management of the Games' finances - including an unexpected £250m VAT bill, though I'm still not entirely clear what "unexpected" means in this context - and warned that London council taxpayers could face an "unacceptable burden" if they are expected to make up the shortfall. No surprise there: the legacy of staging the Olympic Games is that the "lucky" city goes on picking up the tab years after the actual event has become a distant memory. In Athens, unused stadia from 2004 are falling into dusty disrepair, while Montreal is still paying 30 years later.
The official government estimate of the cost of building the 2012 Olympic park in London was £2.4bn, with an extra £1bn for regeneration work. Now the total has risen to £3.3bn (£4.3bn including infrastructure). I'm not convinced that regeneration of run-down areas should depend on extravaganzas such as the Olympics, but the larger point is that the British government has a spectacular record of not being able to bring projects in on budget, whether we are talking about ruinously expensive computer systems or the Millennium Dome.
Ah yes, the Dome: that money-pit into which a Labour government, inheriting the plans from the Tories, foolishly continued to throw cash. Ministers just about survived that early fiasco, when decisions were being made in a climate of sunny optimism, but by the summer of 2005 things were already very different. It hardly needed the 7/7 bombings, which took place the day after London got the Olympics, to remind us that the Games will be a security nightmare, while critics knew it was only a matter of time before the official cost estimates began to fall apart. (We're all familiar with that kind of accounting, where you covet something so much you persuade yourself you can afford to pay for urgent repairs to the roof and have money left over for a foreign holiday.)
I never wanted the Olympic Games in London, I don't want to pay for them and I will be very angry if the cost over-runs appear on my council tax bill. But even sports-lovers should be asking whether the Games can or should continue in their present form, not just because of their shabby commercialism but because the expenditure of such vast sums of money every four years cannot possibly be justified. Even in relatively affluent democracies, there are far more ethical ways of spending between £4bn and £10bn (the pessimists' estimate of the eventual 2012 bill) than on state-of-the-art sports facilities which will be used intensively for only two-and-a-half weeks. Wasting public money on this scale is, frankly, a scandal.
The case for a permanent Olympic site, funded by the participating nations - Athens is the obvious choice - is overwhelming. In the meantime, wouldn't it be sensible to cut our losses by getting the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, to ring the French and ask whether Paris might be available in 2012 after all?Reuse content