Two weeks that changed British sport forever

Posted on 12:13 AM by Sameer Shah

A London mayor who can post Eton, Oxford and The Spectator on his CV took the Olympic flag from a Chinese counterpart who was a Communist enforcer in Tibet and remains a major player in the totalitarian elite.

Boris Johnson receiving the five-ringed ensign from Guo Jinlong was the final culture shock of a Games that changed British sport for ever, turned London 2012 from a giant budget over-run into potentially the greatest carnival our capital has seen and exposed the best and worst of the Chinese system.

Deng Xiaoping decreed that 'China should hide its dazzling light'. Those days are long gone, comrade.

So now it falls to London to deliver on its ego by serving up an Olympic fiesta which will ace Beijing in one vital respect.

China welcomed the world but failed to invite its own people, which is why the last 17 days have lacked human engagement, passion, fervour, despite the dazzling highs of Michael Phelps's eight gold medals and Usain Bolt blasting a hole in the frontier of human speed by winning the 100m and 200m in world record time.

Apart from sporadic eruptions of Chinese patriotism in the country's favourite sports, the proletariat who built the sublime Bird's Nest Stadium and Water Cube aquatics centre had their noses pushed against the Olympic bubble.

They live under a regime which does not trust its own citizens with the narcotics of freedom and spontaneity. The authorities offer trickle-down prosperity but only if the workers keep their noses out of politics. If anyone in Victorian England had told him that a society would one day fuse rampant capitalism with communism, Karl Marx would have laughed his beard off.

The city where Marx studied is a hotbed of sporting obsession.

The British will besiege ticket kiosks, flood into venues, volunteer to stand around all day smiling at foreigners and roar their support for a newlyemboldened GB Team who helped us see beyond the mono-culture of Premier League football.

Ignore the glorified village fete of 1908. This was the most successful campaign in British Olympic history.

The team's Beijing adventure ended with Dan Robinson staggering home in brutal heat to finish 24th in the men's marathon, but by then the 2012 hosts had rattled up 19 gold, 13 silver and 15 bronze medals for a grand total of 47, which left them fourth in the table, behind the Olympic superpowers China, USA and Russia.

To beat Germany and Australia into fifth and sixth was the ultimate British fantasy.

Only 12 years ago in Atlanta, Britain finished 19th in the medals table and limped home with a single gold. In response, John Major's government unleashed a tsunami of lottery funding and sports such as cycling, rowing, sailing and swimming transformed themselves into elite fighting units to assuage the fear that London 2012 would be remembered as another infrastructure debacle.

Our sporting culture has changed for good and for the better.

The spending on the London Games could only ever be justified if it produces a revival in grass-roots sport, in participation, not just for elite athletes but for the obesity threatened young. That hope burns more brightly now, assuming politicians can comprehend the message.

It was gauche of our official literature to declare to the world last night: 'We demonstrate why London remains the coolest place on the planet.' If you have to say you're cool you're generally not.

Nor did the handover convey a coherent image of modern Britain: an X-Factor winner, an ancient rocker, lots of random dancing and a non-Olympian in David Beckham (or 'Blazing Flame' as they know him here) booting a ball into the crowd.

It was caught by a volunteer: a small but fitting reward for all their generosity and warmth.

Johnson, or Bo Jo, as we now know him, drew a laugh from royalty as he laboured to wave the Olympic flag six times in line with protocol and wore the look of a bashful Oxford fresher. The speech bubble, which the Princess Royal could read as well as the rest of us, probably ran: 'Golly gosh, how marvellous it all is!'

Never mind that Beckham's chariot looked more like Led Zeppelin's tour bus than the kind of vehicle Londoners might ride along the Strand. Or that the former England coach Steve McClaren was absent from the cast of those clutching brollies.

The Mayor's war on 'Olympo-sceptics' is going well. Ours will be the Self-Deprecation Games. More seriously, Johnson has declared his wish that London arenas should be packed, unlike those in Beijing, and that schoolchildren should fill the stands.

The London Olympics began as a ploy to regenerate London's East End, but they have morphed into something grander. For that we ought to thank the athletes, whose high funding levels tell only part of the tale. England's footballers are astonishingly well paid - but that hasn't helped them reach the final of a tournament, post-1966.

Britain's track and field squad were the only let-down. London is about to blow half a billion pounds on a main stadium which will house a team who won just four medals in Beijing, only one of them gold. But this feeble record is obscured, for now, by the landmark moments in better-run sports.

The cyclist Chris Hoy is the first Briton to win three golds at a single Games; Louis Smith is the first men's gymnastics medallist for 100 years; 19-year-old Rebecca Adlington is our best swimmer for a century; Rebecca Romero is Britain's first female Olympian to win medals in two separate disciplines.

The IOC president Jacques Rogge claimed: 'One fifth of the world's population was exposed to Olympic values in a way they had never experienced before.' He added: ' Placing sport at the service of mankind and leveraging Olympic values to promote better understanding between people, nations and religions stands at the core of our mission.'

Rogge did not explain how this squares with the IOC's reticence when it comes to political issues, such as the sentencing of two Chinese women in their Seventies to 'reeducation through labour' for having the temerity to apply to stage a legal protest.

For them - fear and humiliation. For us - great opportunities for London, starting in 1,432 days, when the GB team will expand from 312 to more than 600 athletes, and we will face a huge international test of our transport system, our competence, our friendliness and our humour.

The best news as darkness fell on the Beijing Games is that our athletes have set the tone and shown the way for London. But it needs to be more than a £9billion exercise in Cool Britannia. It needs to make British sport more than just good TV.

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