Leading article: The days of our lives

London 2012 is a triumph of new Britain – of all ages, colours and backgrounds

If there is an unsung founder of Britain's triumphant performance at the Olympics, it is surely the unlikely figure of Sir John Major – a man who, were he still in office, would no doubt be describing the past fortnight as "a not inconsiderable success". He instituted the National Lottery, which has proved such a bountiful source of funds for our elite athletes. Admittedly, as a member of the party that sold off school sports fields with such alacrity, he had some amends to make. In this uniquely Tory form of income redistribution, money has been taken (albeit voluntarily) from the many and given to the few. As long as this continues, high promise should never again wither for the want of a grant.

British athletes' success is a triumph, therefore, not merely of individual talent and effort, but also of public funding. David Cameron's and Boris Johnson's attempts to garner reflected credit will not survive the night if they do not acknowledge and act upon this. Mr Cameron's usual reliance on easy-on-the-ear anecdotes – most recently with his remarks about Indian dancing in schools not really being sport – shows that he still has a narrow grasp of physical activity as done by most of us unblessed with the talent of a Trott or Farah. The challenge now is to see enthusiasm for watching sport translate into doing it. That means reform of school curriculums, and assistance to boost the already high numbers of teachers coaching out of school hours. It needs, too, a change in the way participating in sport is viewed. Physical activity is advocated so often as an antidote to obesity, but its great virtue is not that it is a life-prolonger, a sort of recreational five-a-day, but fun. And, such is its variety, that, whatever your age or body shape, there is a physical recreation that will give pleasure and add dimension to any life.

Yet we didn't just play up and play the games – very well, as it happened – we also organised the whole thing, created the arenas, transported the crowds, protected them and the athletes, and made these Olympics – from the first moments of the opening ceremony – the Happy Games. This country, perennial podium finisher in its specialist event of being unimpressed with itself, not only laid on a sensationally successful global spectacle, but also made it – with its humour, quirkiness and touches of irony – a very British affair.

This summer, starting with the Jubilee, has been a continuous promotional video to the rest of the world. It has also reminded its own citizens of the capabilities of this odd little island and its people. You'd have to be made of wood not to have felt twinges of pride these past few weeks, and you'd have to be peculiarly unimaginative to fail to see that the real reason for this goes far beyond running, jumping, fighting and riding.

We may not be galvanised by the Olympics into suddenly transforming the economy or curing the ills that tainted our streets last summer. But we'd like to think that more than a passing feel-good factor has been generated by London 2012 – not just the immediate lustre of gold, silver and bronze, but the knowledge that this was a triumph not of old Britain, but new: competitors in their teens or fifties, black, white and shades in between; ageing rockers, young rappers; women, contributing nearly half the glory and more than their shares of the smiles; volunteers from every background; the witty, the imaginative, the accomplished. The knowledge of that, the confidence to be drawn from it, could be the real legacy of these Games.