Matthew Norman: The mess of this hubristic madness

It will be difficult to stomach the beatific smiles of Blair, Jowell and Livingstone at the opening ceremony
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The Independent Online

For reasons too opaque even to guess at, there is a golden rule of human existence which states that, on those exceedingly rare occasions when England has a major global sporting success, the punishment will be quick and lethal.

I am writing these words on Thursday morning, red eyed and morose, after an all night vigil that illustrated this truth with monstrous clarity. Barely had England regained the Ashes last summer than Michael Vaughan, whose inspired captaincy did so much to bring that miracle to pass, suffered a career-threatening knee injury.

The result of this, and the loss of other key players, is a greatly weakened and apparently shell-shocked team led by Andrew Flintoff, whose bowling changes in the first session in Brisbane in the early hours of this morning suggested he may be working under deep cover for the Aussies.

Also in Australia, three years ago, Johnny Wilkinson kicked the last-minute drop goal that won England the rugby union World Cup. Since then, he has barely played, due to a sequence of injuries, of which the current "lacerated left kidney" is the 10th, so serious and outlandish as to make the plagues visited on Egypt by Jehovah look like a Pharaonic picnic on the banks of the Nile.

Four years after England won its only other World Cup, a much stronger side, regarded as joint favourites with Brazil, had a quarter final with West Germany - and the night before that 1970 fixture in Mexico City, Gordon Banks succumbed to a stomach bug. His replacement in goal, Peter Bonetti, played like a blind drunk, a 2-0 lead was converted into a 2-3 defeat, and the national team entered a period of decline from which it still shows little sign of emerging.

Although the story is always the same - a moment of euphoria, an eon of misery - with the 2012 Olympics, the vengeance was swifter and more brutal than ever. At 11.49am on 6 July 2005, the Internal Olympic Committee awarded the games to London. At 8.50am the following day, three bombs were detonated on the London underground. Twenty-one hours and a minute of delusional elation had elapsed before Nemesis, promoted for the occasion from third-rate Greek deity to fully-fledged Olympian, struck.

Once the initial shock had worn off, this apparent coincidence of timing posed two obvious questions. Why had a city facing such petrifying security problems - whose police hadn't stopped warning us since 9/11 of the inevitability of terrorist attacks and whose airport had recently before been ringed with tanks - striven to host the quadrennial calendar's premier magnet for attempted terrorist atrocity? And in what precise way had the invasion of Iraq, which so colossally heightened that threat and directly provoked these bombings, reinforced the ideals of peace and fraternity about which those nauseatingly cute children sing at Olympic opening ceremonies?

The similarities between how Britain came to be involved in these two global events run deep, albeit current estimates of the final Olympic bill dwarf the bargain £5bn spent so far on destroying the lives of Iraqis. Mr Tony Blair and his government continue to insist that the primary reason for both was the desire to help the needy, by removing the tyranny of Saddam in one case and by regenerating part of London's East End in the other.

But the real motivation with each was the same political egomania and the same fruitless search for a cure for the residual post-imperial hangover. Still unable to accept our reduced international status even now half a century after Suez, our leaders cannot beat this addiction to swaggering on the world stage.

Meanwhile, a government that has blithely continued the Thatcherite policy of selling school sports fields to Tesco, now pays lip service to the notion that the Olympics will enthuse schoolkids to ditch their PS2s for wholesome exercise. With a pandemic of junk food and fizzy drink-generated infant obesity anticipated, Tessa Jowell's witterings sound sensible enough. And then you recall that when these children watch the 2012 games on TV, the logos they will incessantly see belong to Coca Cola and McDonald's, such venerable Olympic "partners" that the flag ought to ditch the rings and replace them with interlocking Big Macs and coke cans.

It was Ms Jowell herself who contrived the original Olympic budget of £2.3bn with Ken Livingstone, the ever less lovable Mayor of London. In another haunting echo of Iraq, they cooked up this dodgy figure while sitting on a sofa. How they arrived at such a blatant fiction in an hour is one for Lord Hutton to consider when they wheel him out of the Sheltered Home for Judicial Buffoons for one positively final engagement, but that bill is now variously estimated at £6bn, £8bn, £10b and even -according to an architect of the disastrous Montreal games of 1972, who might have some insight -£20bn and beyond.

And for what? If we are to believe, as Steve Richards argued in this newspaper yesterday, that the Labour government of the world's fourth or fifth wealthiest nation cannot contemplate regenerating areas of urban deprivation without covering its shame with a sporting fig leaf, what kind of obscene judgment is this on the cowardice of our politicians? For nine years they failed to make the case for improving the lives of the poor until they found a multi-billion spoonful of sugar, in the form of a sporting event traditionally beset by corruption and thoroughly discredited by widespread drug use in athletics.

London, Mr Livingstone loves to remind is, is the greatest city in the world - which rather begs the question of why such large chunks of it need regenerating at all. But of course it is no such thing, and the mayor's reiteration of this cretinous cliché never fails to bring a wry smile to those of us who live under virtual house arrest (in our part of west London, it's like being caught inside a permanent road block) in this wretchedly administered, violent, charmless, wickedly overpriced, terrorist-ridden hell hole.

The chaos that will ensue over the coming years to create transport links and buildings certain to be underused the minute the games are over, to produce 17 days of sport that 99.999 per cent of those interested will watch on TV just as we would wherever the games were held, will inevitably make things worse, but we can live with that.

What will be more difficult to stomach are the beatific grins on the faces of Mr Blair, Ms Jowell and Mr Livingstone as they swank it up at the opening ceremony, having wasted however many billions but assured in their own deluded minds that history will honour them for their profligacy.

Almost everyone else will be losers - and therein lies the one and only faithful representation in this mess of Baron de Coubertin's revered dictum that it isn't the winning that counts but the taking part. What utter hubristic madness this is. No wonder Nemesis couldn't wait even a day to do her stuff.

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