Philip Hensher: We're attempting to define the indefinable for 2012

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As David Beckham kicked a football, Leona Lewis burst into song, a double-decker bus trundled into the Beijing stadium, and Boris Johnson took on the unforeseen role of flag-waving cheerleader, I wondered whether it occurred to anyone that perhaps the British are not all that good at this sort of thing. What does our nationality actually look like?

As our collective toes start to curl in anticipatory embarrassment, to remain locked in that position until the pageant of Britishness which will kick off the 2012 London Olympics, perhaps we ought to start to ask with some urgency what these games are going to mean to those of us who pay very little attention to sport in general and haven't actually raised the remote control in the past two weeks. No, not even at the prospect of a British triumph in the Yngling or the cycle sprint.

How are they going to claim to represent us? What are we going to get out of it in the end? It's mildly tragic that, these days, one of the easiest ways to fund a major redevelopment programme appears to be to host the Olympic Games. As much as the eastern stretches of London needed transport links and investment, there seemed to be no political will to undertake that without the panem et circenses of the event. These days, the two weeks of running and throwing and swimming is a definite sideshow. The main event appears to come in two halves. The first is an indefinable sense of national pride; the second, a definable "legacy".

Last year, I was in Athens, a mere three years after their Olympics. Travelling through the outskirts of the city, it was positively alarming how often one passed some elaborate Olympic project, already crumbling and abandoned to the weeds. And if you go further back, the Sydney Olympics, despite all hopes, doesn't seem to have inspired a generation towards sporting prowess. Australia came a relatively depressing sixth in the medal table this year. Anticipation, in that case, appears to have been a more effective goad than memory of what, by all accounts, was a highly successful games. National pride is most effectively and lastingly excited in the case of small nations, winning on a small scale – the single bronze medal won by an Afghan boxer will have meant a great deal in Kabul.

More nebulous questions of "legacies" don't seem to be justified by what the commentators are pleased to call "Olympic history". Awarding the games to oppressively governed nations in the hope that international attention will persuade them to moderate their position has never worked. The Soviet Union prematurely celebrated their games in 1980 by invading Afghanistan. The real legacy, I venture to predict, from the London games in 2012 will be an immense increase in surveillance and government control, above and beyond the horrifying levels now in place. All of this could not be easier to justify in the name of security threats to Olympic ceremonies, and it will not be removed once the Games are over.

This, we are told, is a chance to represent ourselves to the world, just as China has demonstrated that it has the money to commission foreign architects to build fanciful structures, and has the degree of control over its citizens to allow it to marshal immense displays of synchronised choreography. What can we do to show ourselves to the world?

Well, some of us, watching vast crowds moving in heavily drilled unison, do have a tendency to think the words "Leni Riefensthal". One of the unfortunate features of Britishness is that its best features don't quite lend themselves to representation in stadium form. Do your best with parliamentary democracy, the discovery of evolutionary biology and the invention of the internet, Lord Coe.

I'm quite tempted by the idea of a platoon of Elizabeth Bennets or phalanxes of black-clad Elizabethans in ruffs addressing themselves to skulls. More realistically, these days, a genuine display of British culture on the first night would mean dissolute regiments of Wags, paparazzi, Emos, chavs and sloanes, culminating in Miss Chelsy Davy in a bikini .

In any case, we shouldn't forget that the summer of 2012 will not only see the London Olympics, but the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen. The London mob, I predict, will have no difficulty in exercising its immense capacity for sentiment and display in the direction it's more used to, towards the golden coach and the small old lady with the big tiara. In any case, once we start worrying about what the outside world thinks of us, and mounting ceremonies to address the question, we might as well give up on being British altogether. All together now: Nobody likes us: we don't care.

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