At last, what Britain’s sports minister this morning called the "biggest single advert for Britain in our history" is here. But have the ten years of hustling and the $20 billion pumped into the Games been worth it for London and for Britain? As Tony Blair commented on Wednesday, we might need a decade to assess the 2012 Olympics’ true effect, but some things already seem to have gone well. Olympic construction projects, so often dogged with delays, have been finished with admirable efficiency, and way ahead of time. And while we’ve been waiting for the Games, London’s already unbeatable arts scene has had one of its best years ever.
As for the greater benefits projected for London’s Olympic legacy, the truth is that many of them might have come about without the Games anyway. Blueprints for the redevelopment of the Lower Lea Valley had been around for years, for example, while only a small proportion of the massive (and hugely successful) upgrade of London’s train network was actually funded with Olympic money. What the Games have been, however, is a powerful catalyst for change, achieving in a decade what might otherwise have taken two or three. Getting these benefits delivered more speedily could give London a welcome boost.
When viewed at close quarters, however, that catalytic effect hasn’t always been easy to stomach. As a born Londoner who still loves this city more than anywhere, I’ve been watching with genuine distress this year as London’s already oppressive levels of security and surveillance have been turned up to eleven. In a city where every shopping street is increasingly dominated by the same big names, major brands have been given a taxpayer-funded Olympic podium from which to promote their interests yet further, making London one shade less like a unique city and one shade more like a European outpost of the Mall of America. In East London, meanwhile, the area’s regeneration has started with the flushing out of the poorer residents it was intended to benefit. And all the while, there has been drip-fed evidence of incompetent use of public funds, right when essential government services are being cut. Played out against a background of two unending years of don’t-ask-questions-just-smile royal flag-waving, I have sometimes felt that what I love about London is being concealed under piles of rubble, corporate exhibitionism and bunting.
Probably, this is just what swift change looks like. What London has experienced is not a bad Olympic run-up, but a pretty standard example of what it takes to stage an event this massive. Now that the good bit – the actual sport – has arrived, it may all seem less significant. It’s also possible that thanks to the Games, in ten years we will be enjoying a radically improved city, with a far better transport system, a formerly depressed East revamped with attractive, socially mixed new neighborhoods and more, better jobs. Amongst all this, of course, could be some continuously popular sporting venues, beautiful parks, and a warm afterglow of international prestige for the city still celebrated for its brilliant, mold-breaking Games. If all this came true, it would make this Olympics skeptic happier than he could ever say.
Top image: Flickr user J@ck!