At a moment when the air is thick with talk of good causes and of helping the less fortunate to get a leg-up in life, it is something of a shock to discover that this week there is a new addition to the list of the deserving: ourselves. No one would sensibly compare the discussions which will take place at Gleneagles to those in Singapore, but that decision about the 2012 Olympics matters quite a lot. It will affect jobs, building, transport, politics and, above all, the national mood over the next seven years.
If we miss this chance, we will remain spectators and guests at the world's great sporting events for some time. Thanks to the way the Olympics and the World Cup are planned, this will be the last time for several years that Britain will be in the frame.
The sophisticated, socially acceptable posture on these occasions is one of weary fatalism, and there are certainly grounds for cynicism. That great champion of our bid, Mr Tony Blair, it will be remembered, was once distinctly lukewarm about Britain becoming involved at all, and his government dithered ineffectually until the last possible moment. It is said that Gordon Brown, not exactly a hearty sports-lover himself and just possibly the man who will be Prime Minster in 2012, is sceptical about the financial benefits for the nation.
Nor do the various members of our presentational team make the heart skip with national pride. If ever there were to be prizes for national figures representing the left, right and centre of the new, bland Britain, Sebastian Coe, Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell would be leading contenders.
There will be worries if we actually win. It is a queasy-making thought that our marketing-crazed government will be able to exploit a successful bid, cranking up the national feelgood factor for its political benefit, rather as Harold Wilson did with the 1966 World Cup.
Finally, there is the lurking fear of a great British cock-up. The Dome may have been an embarrassment, but it was relatively private one. The indecisiveness and over-spending that have marked projects like Wembley Stadium and the new Scottish parliament have at least not exposed us to international ridicule.
But what will happen if the Tube fails to work properly? Could some ghastly return to the days of strikes and labour unrest sabotage the new arena? Worst of all, will our now-famous yob culture introduce guests to some the less attractive aspects of British life - litter, swearing, defecating attack-dogs, sexual activity on the High Street on Saturday nights, youths mooning out of car windows, and so on?
It is these fears which explain why London had the lowest support among its own citizens for their own city's bid. We have lost faith in our own society. In spite of our cheery world leader of a Prime Minister, national self-esteem is shaky and fragile. And that is largely why we need and deserve to host the Olympics more than any of our rivals.
Britain has become so habituated to feeling embarrassed about some of its citizens that it has failed to notice that, in spite of the occasional flare-ups, hooliganism in these islands is on the wane. When last year a large football crowd in Spain, one of our Olympic rivals, made monkey noises whenever a black player was on the ball, we were able, for the first time in living memory, to adopt a position of moral superiority. Thanks to the habit of British football clubs buying foreign stars, on occasion dispensing with English players altogether, crowds have become less insular, more internationally minded.
There are, in fact, the first signs that, as a nation, we are beginning to recover from a serious crisis of confidence. The chance to run a successful Olympic games will accelerate the process. "Make Britain Proud", the slogan used to cajole Londoners into supporting the bid may have uncomfortable echoes of Robert Maxwell's notorious "I'm Backing Britain" campaign, but it strikes the right note.
Sport has great redemptive powers. The sourness and cynicism that have eaten their way into the national soul are partly a result of too often coming second, of being the plucky loser in the world's great competitions. Much of the ambivalence towards the idea that we might actually run the Olympics rather well (and it might be an idea to get Bob Geldof on board right now) has been caused by a fear of eventual crashing disappointment.
We have been in contention, off and on the pitch, at too many great sporting events, only to see the prize go to Germany, America, France or Australia, to allow ourselves the optimism of the would-be victor.
Of course, we deserve to win. Of our rivals, America seems to have had the Olympics every eight years or so; the invocation of 11 September by Mayor Bloomberg is about as cynical as it is despairing. Besides, the United States straddles the world so unattractively now that it should have the grace, on this occasion, to make way for another country. Spain has also had its Olympic day recently, while France has not only hosted the World Cup but is going through one of its temperamental and political crises at present.
Now it is our chance. Britain is a sports-obsessed, under-achieving nation. Winning the bid would be a huge prize, one that will energise us, cheer us up and persuade us to look outwards to the world in a mood of new confidence. Let us hope Coe can bring home the gold once more.Reuse content