There was a time when the only targets at an Olympic Games were those in the archery and shooting competitions. Now, however, we have medal targets – and yesterday the Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, announced Great Britain's wish-list for the London Games, which start three weeks tomorrow.
Of the growing number of depressing things about the Games – the £9bn cost, the VIP lanes, the ticket prices, the kowtowing to the IOC, the corporatisation, the logo control-freakery, the rooftop anti-aircraft missiles, the composition of a special piece of music for GB runner Dai Green to chill out to in the moments leading up to his event – the whole notion of medal targets may be the most depressing of all.
I guess the £500m of Lottery and Government money that has been poured into Britain's Olympic training programme demands "a return", and 48 medals is what Mr Robertson has told us to look forward to. Well, great. But to reduce sport to the level of sales figures strips it of any last vestige of romance and is a refusal to acknowledge that athletic endeavour is nothing without its glorious imponderables. Like luck. Or someone doing a Bob Beamon.
Did anyone ever treat Mary Peters or Seb Coe or Daley Thompson as workers programmed to deliver the goods? In those days such a concept only existed in the notorious arenas and sports halls of eastern Europe, where sporting achievement was intended to underpin an abiding political philosophy. Once you create a culture in which the sportsperson's right to fail is removed, then it's not sport any more.
What if – perish the thought – the 2012 Games had gone to Paris? Would we be talking about beating all but the US, Russia and China in the final medal table? I rather doubt it, and that Britain's athletes happen to be performing at home does not justify this burden of expectation, however much has been spent preparing them.
"The majority of people judge the success of this event on where we end in the medal table," Mr Robertson said yesterday. Really? I'd have thought the definition of a successful Games is not whether the host nation dominates the action. It's much more about the atmosphere of the Games, the efficiency with which they are run, the lasting benefits, the warmth of the welcome visitors receive, the quality of performances irrespective of nationality, and the general impression the host city creates.
Most Spaniards – or rather, Catalans – would say that what mattered about Barcelona in 1992 wasn't the medals won by locals, nice though they were, but the prestige the event conferred on the city. This is what will make London 2012 special, not gobbling up a load of medals just because we paid for them.
Simon O'Hagan is an Assistant Editor of The Independent
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