It was all right on the night. There is no denying that the London Olympics brought real joy to everyone in Britain.
Everyone except one bloke living near Cardiff. 90% of the British public watched the Olympics on television, so when you deduct those who are too young or too senile, those on vacation and people without a television you have the entire British population ... bar one.
Part of the reason for this joy was satisfaction at the fact that this tiny country – less than one per cent of the global population – came third in the gold medal table. The old Imperial power still punches well above her weight.
However, for most Britons, the euphoria was triggered largely by an overwhelming sense of relief that we did not mess it up. Everyone expected a disaster and with good reason: Brits are not good at large-scale organisation, especially when government is involved. After all, we are the nation that gave the world British Leyland, the Millennium Dome, and the Basra and Helmand campaigns.
Happily, we are also the nation that specialises in unlikely last-minute success against the odds after a bad start occasioned by our own incompetence – Dunkirk, the Falklands, and now the 2012 Olympics. The sense of relief should not be allowed to hide the fact that the organisers and the government got a lot of things wrong, and avoidable problems with the security, transport, and ticket sales just before the games began gave us all good reason to fear a national humiliation. In the end, that did not happen.
Somehow it all came together when it counted. On their own terms, the games were an undoubted success.
The real challenge now is for debt-ridden, zero-growth Britain to turn the good feelings and positive international media coverage of the Olympics into an economic asset.
Make no mistake: in the short-term at least, the games could be ill afforded by britain. Your contributor lives in a rugby town, and knows how the vast majority of local businesses do badly on match days. Sports crowds spend money at a certain number of hospitality and entertainment venues but nowhere else. Those who imagined the relatively small amounts of money brought by tourists would compensate for the disruption of large parts of the economy for two weeks were clearly ignorant of business.
Yet if there is one great truth about business it is that it is all about confidence. At, say, £10 bn the Olympics cost the equivalent of one month’s government borrowing but they have shown the British that they can do more than they think – and perhaps that can be applied to British business. They need a Reagan or a Clinton, a leader with the ability to make people feel good about themselves, to remind them of their potential. The current party leaders are a depressing bunch of apparatchiks, but Lord Coe and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, showed that the art of giving hope to the cynical is not dead in the land of Drake, Nelson, and Churchill.