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Deepak Lal: The Olympics, good and bad

The Games may have shown off Britain, but were bread and circuses for a declining empire

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In London, the last two weeks have been dominated by the Olympics. With the terrorist scares, predicted traffic chaos, an announced strike by immigration officers at Heathrow, the deployment of troops to overcome the failure of the contracted to provide the staff required to screen visitors to the various Games sites, and the that have drowned London since we returned in June, our decision to stay on in London for the Games seemed foolish. But these doubts were soon allayed. The Games showed at its best — and most risibly politically correct.

The opening ceremony was puerile. This was to be expected, since it was inexplicably entrusted to , the purveyor of “poverty porn” in , when distinguished directors like or could have been called upon. It has been praised as “irreverent and quirky” in contrast with the regimented narrative of Chinese history at the Beijing Olympics. But, as the Oxford classics don and Financial Times correspondent Robin Lane Fox rightly summed up: “It was 27 m pounds of piffle from start to finish. It was also tendentious and blinkered. To those abroad who could follow it, the one abiding message is that the Brits are mad.” The most tendentious tableau was the celebration of the largest nationalised industry in the world serving producer rather than consumer interests – the National Health Service – with prancing nurses and children jumping on beds.

But if the purpose was to poke a finger in the eye of Beijing, there were so many other themes that would have given a much better idea of Britain’s astounding achievements. The first is the idea of civil and political freedom enshrined in law and custom, from the Magna Carta to ’s Speakers Corner and Prime Minister’s Questions, which has been successfully exported around the world. The parachute jump of the Queen with into the stadium did make a similar point, it being unimaginable that Hu Jintao would have done it in Beijing. The second is the long British tradition in the sciences, philosophy, medicine, economics and the humanities stretching from Newton, Hume, Smith, Gibbon, Darwin, Mill, Marshall, Fleming, Turing, Hamilton et al. They have changed our fundamental understanding of the world in a way the purely instrumental engineering advances of Brunel or Berners-Lee as celebrated by Mr Boyle can never match. The third is Britain’s long and distinguished maritime and military history, which created the largest Empire since Rome and still allows Britain to “punch above its weight” in world affairs.  

But once the Games started, it was the stupendous achievements of Britain’s athletes that one marvelled at. Britain’s largest ever haul of gold medals – just behind the US and China – was partly dependent upon money from the National Lottery, which provided coaches and physical infrastructure for the athletes to train. But, with a large number of the gold-medal winners having come from public schools, or from Yorkshire where the old local athletic clubs still thrive, or from the working-class boxing clubs of London, the victories were those of individuals supported (in large part) by local institutions competing for personal glory — and not of the collective machines dragooning youngsters to win medals for the fatherland, as is still current in China. Except for the superstars like Usain Bolt, and now presumably Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, who can earn large sums from “branding”, the financial rewards for the others remain meagre compared to, say, footballers and cricketers.

The Olympics, good and badMost important of all, about this time last year we were witness to riots by the underclass (see my column, “London Burning”, Business Standard, August 20, 2011). The culture that gave rise to those riots was nowhere in evidence, on the sports field or outside. This was a celebration of middle-class manners –as exemplified by the thousands of volunteers who guided visitors to the various venues in and around London – and culture. The uncouth behaviour, which is second nature to the participants in football matches, was not in evidence. This showed that Britain remains, by and large, well-mannered and genial, and that a tough police presence following New York’s policing practice of “no broken windows” can retrieve public spaces from the underclass.

For India, the Games were a disaster. For all the talk of India Shining, the country was last in the per capita haul of medals. This is surprising, since at least for track-and-field events India’s public schools should be able to provide the facilities and incentives to train Olympic stars. Similarly, the billionaires created since liberalisation should be able to fund the physical infrastructure and coaching to create Olympic winners in a country of India’s size. It is these private and local initiatives that are needed rather than public funding — which, as the ill-starred Commonwealth Games demonstrated, merely provides another avenue for rent-seeking.

But governments everywhere claim that hosting the Olympics will have an economic pay-off. However, as the Michigan university sports economist Stefan Szymanski argues, “a substantial well-researched academic literature shows that if anything the reverse is true: hosting big sporting events is an economic burden.” But he finds they do make people happier in the months after their country has hosted such an event.  

So, fittingly, the ended with a pop concert. As mannequins dressed by British fashion designers paraded, and various pop stars belting their hearts out trampled on quotations from Shakespeare (“To be or not to be”; “The rest is silence”) which covered the floor, my mood soured. I remembered the £10 billion cost of the party, to which as a taxpayer I would directly or indirectly have to contribute. I could not help reflecting, as various pundits were droning on about the end of Britain’s post-imperial decline, on another empire, Rome, which too used “bread and circuses” to keep the mob at bay — until the money ran out, which left the empire without the means to keep the barbarians outside the gate. While Britain parties, without any money to put aircraft on its new aircraft carriers, will future generations look upon the remains of the Olympic stadium as we do the Colosseum — a reproach to the “welfare state”, which led to the end of one of the world’s mightiest empires?

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