London party

The hopes and dreams nurtured by the London Olympics have turned to dust

Today is the tenth anniversary of the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Even before the end of the ceremony, the London Olympics were celebrated as a triumph.

This claim was of course rooted in the fact that Britain came third in the overall medal standings, beaten only by America and China.

But it was not only the number of medals that made it possible to consider the Games a success. It was also because of the way London’s infrastructure – that which already existed and that which was being built for the Games – facilitated the spectacle.

More than that, the work of the professionals and the volunteers allowed a level of organization which was an immense source of satisfaction for all those who took part.

In line with this, the motto of the Games was “Inspire a Generation” and there were many comments following the Games that London’s legacy would indeed allow such inspiration to widen access to the sport and create a sense of possibility. through sport, which would prove to be transformative.

It is true that the Olympics are awarded to cities rather than countries, but the London Olympics were presented as a celebration of Britishness. And you could say that the triumph of the Games was a demonstration of the best of Britain: a modern multicultural society which, given its continuing problems, was safe and prosperous.

The euphoria of that month of August ten years ago made the excesses of such claims largely understandable, as people were carried away by a wave of joy, hope and pride.

Now, however, reading the reports from that glorious summer of 2012, there are reminders after reminders of just how much has changed in Britain.

Indeed, so much of that sense of unity of purpose and enjoyment has been wasted that it seems almost delusional to have even considered it possible in the first place, let alone believed it to be true.

It is of course true that the idea that all was well in Britain at the time is nonsense; it was too flippant a claim to be sustainable, especially given the austerity of the years following the financial crash.

And it is still the case that successive Olympic Games are used by countries to present an image of themselves which is very carefully maintained. Look at the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. It was autocracy dressed to present modern sophistication and the illusion of very particular values.

But, given this, it is an astonishing fact that it is exceptionally difficult to see how a London Olympics could now bring Britain or Britishness together even in a mirage; such is the disunity on the island that any claim to the contrary would crumble.

It’s one of the great ironies of the London Olympics that one of the people most associated with their success is also one of the great architects of the crisis now gripping Britain: Boris Johnson.

Obviously, the Olympics was the perfect political vehicle for Johnson. This allowed for a seemingly endless carnival of photo opportunities and inconsequential speeches. He may have appeared energetic, eloquent and responsible. He could bathe in the glory of the hour.

But he was singularly unable to use his position as mayor of London in the years since 2012 to live up to the legacy promised by the Games. In everything from urban regeneration to expanding sports participation, Johnson has failed.

To be fair, it’s the type of failure that has been commonplace after the Olympics in host cities around the world for decades; the amount of money that is spent never translates to the magnitude of the wider social benefits and developments that are regularly promised in rhetoric.

But where Johnson most brutally destroyed any potential 2012 legacy was in his prominent role as one of the extraordinarily arrogant Etonian Brexiteers whose incompetence and disregard for the lives of others continue to reveal itself more fully day by day.

In the cynicism of his Brexiteer pose and the manipulations that saw him elected prime minister, Johnson performed in a way that proved deeply divisive. That he lied repeatedly is a long established fact. That he is leaving high office in disgrace, repeatedly exposed as unfit for the role, is cause for celebration as it has been revealed for what he is – but the damage he has done will not be fixed soon, and probably not at all.

Johnson’s successor as prime minister certainly appears to be Liz Truss. Where to start with it, if not to say that the Conservative Party seems well on its way to imposing yet another incapable opportunist on the country it leads.

It says a lot about Truss that she said: “We need to revive the 2012 Olympic spirit – a modern, patriotic and enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve this.”

It takes quite extraordinary contortions to produce a sentence like that. Although if you’ve seen the YouTube clip of the speech she gave on cheese, pork and apples in 2014 at the Conservative Party’s annual conference, it won’t come as a big surprise. There’s something so deeply empty about this speech that’s kind of terrifying.

While the London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony didn’t garner the kind of spectacular reviews that Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony did, it was brilliant nonetheless. In particular, the “Symphony of British Music” which lasted more than an hour brought together the music of David Bowie, The Who, Fatboy Slim and The Spice Girls, among others. The music was a powerful reminder of the prestige and global resonance of British popular culture. In short, it was an exuberant way to end the London 2012 Olympic Games.

But when you look at performance now, it’s completely changed by context. The story has a way of rendering absurd much of what we once thought was about to unfold. In the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012, it would not have seemed plausible that Britain would leave the European Union or that Boris Johnson would be elected Prime Minister. But the elements of dissonance that caused such upheaval lurked below the surface. And it’s not so much that the Conservative party was unable to manage these elements, but rather that it helped create them, encouraged them, and then allowed them to control.

Paul Rouse is Professor of History at University College Dublin