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LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 27: General View as fireworks illuminate the sky during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Isles of wonder?

Isles of wonder?

LONDON, ENGLAND – JULY 27: General View as fireworks illuminate the sky during the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

The London Olympics seemed to promise a new beginning for Britain. Ten years on, Paul Hayward wonders what happened

In the BBC’s London Olympic mockumentary Twenty Twelve, the fictional “head of deliverance” played by Hugh Bonneville uttered a line you could later buy as a water-bottle sticker: “So I really think the thing to take away from all this is that everything is basically fine. So that’s all good.”

Twenty Twelve ran from March 2011 to July 2012, stopping three days before an opening ceremony that would usher in – sceptics believed – 17 days of incompetence and chaos. But Bonneville’s character, Ian Fletcher, turned out to be right. Everything was basically fine. The spoof’s head of brand, head of legacy and Special Catastrophisation Unit were not the harbingers of an epic British cock-up. 

This summer brings the tenth anniversary of the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, a two-stage Utopian festival in which Britain remembered how public spirited it could be. From 27 July to 9 September the Olympics and Paralympics interrupted the journey the country turned out to be on, towards Brexit four years later, division, and today’s crisis of faith in politics. 

Idealising London 2012 unconditionally is a bad idea. To do so would overlook the rash of doping violations that rendered the Games the “dirtiest” in history. It would ignore, too, the funding scandal of the £537 million Olympic Stadium, now occupied by West Ham, who pay £2.5 million a season in rent for an arena, the mayor’s office said last year, that is costing London taxpayers £8 million a year to run. 

The promised boom in mass participation in sport never materialised. Olympic success is a top-down TV spectacle, an extravaganza that speeds across the screen. It sets off no mass rush to buy sailing boats, canoes and javelins, though a few converts do walk through the door of individual sports. The head of legacy is still struggling with London’s promise to “inspire a generation”. 

‘The Olympics and Paralympics interrupted the country’s journey towards Brexit and division’

“There’s a direct link between elite success and participation in sport,” the then prime minister, David Cameron, promised. By June 2016, however, Sport England was reporting a small drop in the number of people playing sport or exercising, compared with 2012. In 2020 a British Academy study looked at the “trickledown effects” of Olympic success. It found “no solid evidence” that “sporting mega-events can lead to a sustainable increase in sport and physical activity participation among members of the general public”. 

Children representing the NHS and children’s literature take part in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony

For 18 hours a day, every day, I covered the London Olympics for the Telegraph. It was the most rewarding experience of my professional life: for the sport, certainly, but more for the light it cast on Britain’s forgotten strengths. By consent the 2012 Paralympics that followed almost immediately were the greatest breakthrough for disabled sport: hotly attended, cheered to the skies, enlightening and inspiring. 

A 5,000-word essay to a tight deadline the day after the Olympic closing ceremony left me with a back injury from the tension of manically typing out so much good news. It felt like I was writing a love letter to a city I had regarded ambivalently, to a country that had converted to benign patriotism.

In those halcyon days we were a long way from the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s characterisation of mass discord, which fits the national picture ten years on: “A tremendous increase in mutual hatred and a somewhat universal irritability of everybody against everybody else.” 

Still startling a decade later is how low Britain’s self-esteem had fallen in the year leading up to the Games. The MPs’ expenses scandal and riots in Tottenham, Croydon, Birmingham, Manchester and beyond eroded confidence in the country’s capacity to deliver on its showy Olympic bid. A double-decker bus ablaze on a Tottenham street less than a year before east and west London were to be rebalanced with the vast Olympic project around Stratford was an image from the Special Catastrophisation Unit’s worst dreams. 

The other Stratford played its part. Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder theme for the opening ceremony drew not only on Shakespeare but the NHS, James Bond, Paul McCartney, JK Rowling, David Beckham powering a speedboat up the Thames, and the Queen, who played herself in a pageant of British self-assurance, some of it self-teasing, most of it unashamedly proud. 

The 26.9 million who watched the £27 million curtain-raiser on the night of 27 July were not to know that ministers in David Cameron’s government had objected to the homage to the NHS (hospital staff pushed 320 beds across the stage). Boyle was accused of politicising London’s welcome to the world. He stood his ground. The medical army who would later take on Covid stayed on the cast list. 

70,000 volunteer “Games Makers” contributed hugely to the spirit of openness that marked London 2012

The spirit of London 2012 was laid out that night. Boyle’s show revived a primal sense of recognition and belonging. It told the British people what they longed to hear about themselves. All the organisers needed then was a deluge of British medals to justify the transfer of Lottery money via low-income gamblers to elite athletes: financial doping, expertly applied. Total UK Sport funding for Team GB was £264 million, at an average of just over £4.5 million per medal. 

The transformation was spectacular, from one gold medal and 36th place in the table at the Atlanta Games in 1996 to 65 medals at London 2012 and third position. The team of shame, as the Atlanta squad were called, became the team of fame. In a new Olympic firmament, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams and Ben Ainslie vindicated the Team GB ethos, with its World Class Programme and buzz phrases: no compromise; the tyranny of the normal. 

‘Boyle’s show revived a primal sense of belonging. It told Britons what they longed to hear about themselves’

The soundtrack of crowd fervour was easily sourced. Britain has led the world in sports tourism. An Ashes series in Australia or British and Irish Lions rugby tour attracts swarms from these Isles of Wonder. At home, the British display a similar compulsion to see, and be seen at, huge communal events. The noise in the London stadium felt like 80,000 nice people all shouting at once. 

Not the least of many seismic changes since 2012 has been a sense that Britain has turned back inwards. At the Games the country faced outwards. Never had an Olympic crowd spread its support so widely: to the home team first, but then to athletes of foreign nations. And at the heart of the logistics were 70,000 “Games Makers”. Many rose before dawn to work with no pay, expenses or accommodation. A post-Olympic spike in volunteering was reported by the London mayor’s office. 

‘Never had an Olympic crowd spread its support so widely: to the home nations, but then to foreign athletes’

London 2012 was the rediscovery of British confidence in its customs and traditions. The city’s great sites acquired a new radiance: Greenwich Park, Hampton Court, the Mall, Lord’s, Wimbledon. The landmarks of imperial British history found fresh meaning, pivoting towards the modern and the young. 

A decade later, British “openness” feels contrived, and is contradicted by the evidence of an immigration policy that threatens to export migrants to Rwanda and places vexing obstacles in the way of Ukrainians escaping barbarism. The spirit of the London Olympics was the polar opposite of how the country feels today. 

The question ten years on is: can Olympic Britain be called back – the sounds and the sweet airs? Is it always there in us or can corroding forces divert national character, destroy the best in us? Britain isn’t the only country wondering how the lurch towards nationalism and populism will turn out. Memories of the greatest seven weeks in Britain’s sporting history remain something to cling to.

‘The spirit of the London Olympics was the polar opposite of how the country feels today’

Messianic boasting about the surface glory of 2012 was to be expected. Vindication was bound to be claimed by those pre-emptively lampooned in Twenty Twelve. Thus Lord Coe declared at the closing ceremony: “We lit a flame and we lit up the world.”

When Mo Farah won the 5,000m “it felt like 80,000 nice people all shouting at once”

It’s only when the Olympic spaceship has risen and departed that the hidden costs are seen. By July last year, sport’s International Testing Agency had recorded 149 athletes who had been banned or disqualified as a consequence of doping at London 2012, many from the new sample reanalysis system. Around a third of the 149 were from Russia. The previous high was at Beijing in 2008, where 81 athletes fell foul of anti-doping. As recently as March this year, the Russian race walker Yelena Lashmanova was banned for two years and stripped of her 2012 Olympic gold.

These are the realities of Olympic sport, which is multibillion-dollar global entertainment, an excuse for gargantuan infrastructure projects. The winning of medals is a game inside a bigger one. But in London ten years ago, an authentic spiritual shift was felt, back to a time imagined by many as better, and forwards to a potentially more civil, tolerant, diverse society. 

Caliban’s speech in The Tempest gave Boyle the idea for his Isles of Wonder motif. “The speech is about the wondrous beauty of the island and his deep, deep affection and devotion to it,” he said. 

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not…” 

A decade on, it’s hard not to feel afeard.

This piece appeared in Festival, the latest edition of the Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can pick up a physical copy in our shop at a special member price.

Photographs Getty Images