Leading article: Roll on the 'intimate' Games

It didn't take long for a nation of highbrow, human rights activists to be converted into jingoistic experts in the rules of taekwondo

The Olympic Games are a circus. We know that it is all at some level ridiculous, but once the action starts, we ooh and aah at the amazing feats and find ourselves transported by the most unexpected virtuosities. All the pre-Games warm-up – human rights, pollution, performance-enhancing drugs – turned out to be subsidiary to the drama of competition.

That should not mean, however, that we forget the doubts. It is possible to conclude that on balance the negatives are outweighed by the positive virtues, while keeping criticisms of the Chinese regime in mind. Which is how it should be. Before the event, China's leaders were on the defensive over Tibet, their support for the Burmese dictatorship and the suppression of the human rights of their own people. Just because the Games have been an enthralling spectacle does not mean such pressure should be eased. If we believe that engagement is preferable to boycott, it has to be critical engagement.

But neither should such criticism obscure the positive side: the simple awe at the testing of the frontiers of human endeavour; the paradox of national pride co-existing with global solidarity; the thrill of the chase. The opening ceremony may have been a matter of taste – some will have preferred the game of Guess the Flag as the athletes paraded to the digitally enhanced fireworks – but when the competition began, the sparks really flew.

This year, the simplest event was the most extraordinary. Usain Bolt's 100m run was one that will last in the memory: how he coasted to the line with a look to either side, punching himself in the chest well before the 9.69 seconds were up. His 200m run was just as commanding, with a margin of victory greater than any for a century.

It did not take long for a nation of "I don't watch sport" highbrow, human rights activists to be converted into jingoistic experts in the rules of taekwondo. Of course, the best British performance in modern times needed to be subjected to critical scrutiny. It was right for some of our compatriots to point out that many of Team GB's gold medals came in sports that require expensive equipment and were obtained by middle-class competitors whose skills were fostered in private schools.

Those are material facts. But they are not the whole story. As Boris Johnson, the mayor of London who takes possession of the Olympic flag today, commented, Rebecca Adlington, who knocked two seconds off the 800m freestyle record, "doesn't come from some sun-drenched Californian sea-resort ... She comes from Mansfield, which is not the kind of place where you walk around in a swimming costume, even in August".

All right, there is the question of the provision of swimming pools, and it could be said that track and field events are the real test, but even there British athletes did well, winning four medals overall.

Nor does the bias towards expensive sports take much away from our national pride. We cheered them all on, even as we grumbled about the BBC's partisan nationalism (as Continental holidaymakers may have observed, German and French broadcasters were just as biased).

It has become commonplace to wax pious about how the success of Beijing could inspire a generation of British youngsters to come forward in time for the 2012 London Games. And slightly less common to praise John Major for putting the lottery funding in place that made this year's success possible. But we should go beyond these platitudes.

Yes, the auguries for 2012 are good. Not least for those events that are decided by subjective judging and hence potentially influenced by the home crowd. However, we should put the euphoria on hold in the pre-Games phase for London. Even in Team GB's success in taking part and Beijing's success in hosting, there are lessons to be learned.

In taking part, we should look on the positive side of the preponderance of privately educated winners, which is that there must be a substantial pool of untapped talent in state schools.

In hosting, it is too early to judge Mr Johnson, Tessa Jowell and Lord Coe, who are charged with delivering the next Games, although if Mr Johnson has indeed shaved £1.1m off the cost of the London operation at Beijing, as he claimed yesterday, that is encouraging.

As we report today, the procedures for awarding contracts for the Games would have been torn to shreds by the British press if they had taken place in any other country. The scale of hospitality provided to members of the Olympic Delivery Authority has been, well, Olympian.

The 2008 Games were arguably the best ever. In four years' time the London Games could be even better. If not, as the IoS reveals today, it will not be for want of lunching.