What a game-changer the Olympics have been. When I was born, London was the largest city in the world. Now there are 30 larger – though it is still the largest in Europe and North America.
We agonised as to whether we had made the right decision to host the games in the first place, though we felt a frisson of excitement at the challenge and dared to hope that we could pull it off. We knew we were a prime and juicy target for a terrorist attack and felt it next to impossible to guarantee that there would be no chinks in our armour.
We fretted over a gridlocked city, militant train drivers going on strike, and whether we could hold our nerve at stage managing such a colossally intricate extravaganza before the focused gaze of the whole world. Most of all – amidst the gloom and despondency of the longest recession in living memory – we worried about the sheer cost of it all. Yet every anxiety has been laid to rest in magnificent style.
The world will long remember these 2012 games and Britain has been showcased as it has never been in its long, long history. It was a project of immense and overarching complexity and we could have been forgiven for our worries as to whether we were any longer up to such a challenge. But that too has been laid to rest. We may not be the titan that bestrode the world when I was born – the only one to look Hitler straight in the eye and not blink – but we remain the repository of immense skills, artistry and organisational powers. The challenges that lie before us are daunting, to say the least, but we have proved to ourselves that however big and complicated they may be, we can cope.
In the past we have acquired something of a reputation for being always able to muddle through, but that can hardly be said of the way we have handled these games. It augers well for great projects like the Thames Estuary Airport; the Bristol Channel tidal energy scheme; the high speed rail link and perhaps anything else we might wish to put our mind to like the extraction of our massive reserves of shale gas.
We have been enthused with a renewed spirit of “can do”. Far from being a nation in decline, we can start to believe that we may be a nation on the cusp of great things again. With our massive reserves of oil around the Falklands, we can become energy-independent again and make ourselves indispensable to our European partners by supplying their needs too – no bad thing in the tough negotiations which lie ahead to repatriate many of the powers we have lost.
As we are all well aware, finance rules the world and the City of London rules finance. Of all metropolises, London seems to be the one that the “movers and shakers” most rave about, buying up real estate wholesale. It is cosmopolitan; tolerant; open; a good place to do business; is perfectly placed – time wise – to transact on the same day with both east and west; boasts an unrivalled theatre-land, along with – at last – good restaurants; and as if all this were not enough, it speaks the world’s lingua franca.
Empire gave us links and goodwill that no other country can match. We have our cosy little Commonwealth Club, spread all over the planet, and we play against each other in our cosy little world of cricket. What fools we have been not to maintain the great trading links we developed over centuries with those who were always best disposed towards us. Had we done so we would not now be so exposed to events on the continent as we are today. Even now it is not too late to reverse this shortsightedness. We should be putting together trade missions with the same zeal and fervour as the missionaries of old who carried the Gospel and opened the way for trade.
Having landed ourselves with the Olympics, we knew that we would be watched as never before for our competence and flair (if there was any) and we surprised the world, not least ourselves.
As for the Paralympics, we even set a new benchmark, having pioneered it – like so much else – in the first place. Disabled people have never in all history felt better about themselves and that is wonderful. In so many respects they took our breath away. Their feats would have outperformed most able-bodied people and they showed guts beyond belief.
In my own humble way I too am bionic – like so many of them – with two knee replacements. I’d be happy – even proud – to stand alongside them, if they would have me. Maybe future organisers should think about a 100m sprint for the over 70s with knee replacements. I’d be up for it in an instant, shouting, “Rio here I come!” The training, I promise, would start at once.
Like many of you (I suspect) I am sad that I could not see all of this wonderful jamboree. But I intend to buy a DVD of the highlights. And there you go! There are some of my Christmas presents taken care of already. For once I wont have to rack my brains for something that will not disappoint.
It may be said that the gods have punished us these many wet summer months for some misdemeanour of which we are unaware. But it appears they may have stayed their hand in ruining the most spectacular sporting jamboree on the planet.
By this time of year the country’s lush foliage is normally beginning to wilt a little. Sometimes even our abundant and lovely grasslands are looking a bit browned off. But with the way it has all panned out it has made this summer, of all summers, the lushest it has ever been. Truly, if the sun shines on all this, our sceptred isle will look like no other place on earth. The nations of our planet will return to their homelands realising, perhaps for the first time, what a beautiful place we inhabit.
With its cosmopolitan and multicultural dynamism they are unlikely to deny they have been privileged to spend a fortnight in the coolest city in the world, and the closest thing to an earthly paradise beyond its city boundaries.
Danny Boyle’s evocation of the Britain he cherishes I hope will do us proud. Someone once said that “it is not what you are, but what you would be”. I believe that to be true and beautifully put.
No event provides such an opportunity to showcase yourself as does the Olympics, and what a sporting year this is already proving to be. We came within a whisker of carrying off the Wimbledon title and Bradley Wiggins has triumphed in the mighty Tour de France in what is surely the greatest single sporting achievement in any of our lifetimes.
We cannot know how many medals we will carry off, but I am sure we will acquit ourselves well. We are, after all, fielding two and a half times as many contestants as we did in Athens. And we are on our own home turf.
What an inspirational overture to all the contestants about to mount the podium to listen to the melody of the Chariots of Fire. We made that film and with it we made the world’s heart beat faster.
We are a little nation, but the footprint we have left on the world is that of a giant. It is small wonder that the author of ‘Jerusalem’, the gifted but delusional William Blake writing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, believed that we were a chosen people favoured by god to be a light to the nations. Only that explanation, he considered, could account for such extraordinary and overwhelming success in the world.
Reticence and understatement are in our genes, but the world looks to, and expects, the host nation to lay out its wares. What are those wares? We have sent out our sons and daughters to every corner of the planet in the greatest diaspora in human history; we created the greatest empire ever known to man and seeded it with justice, law, democracy and the world’s first – and likely to be its only – universal language; and our scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers catapulted the world into the Industrial Revolution: the only true change in the human condition since hunter-gathers turned to farming. It is not too much to say that we have invented the modern world.
And let’s not forget, during this great celebration of human physical prowess, our own contribution to sport. Just listen to the roll call of competitive sports we invented: football, golf, rugby, cricket; baseball, tennis, polo, modern boxing, darts, eventing/horse trials, billiards, badminton, squash, hockey, snooker, sailing, motor racing and Formula One, table tennis, cycling, rowing, ice hockey; bowls, ten-pin bowling, some forms of skiing, mountaineering and curling. It doesn’t appear we left very much for anyone else, does it?
So as tomorrow you enter this great festival of human endeavour be proud of who you are and of what your ancestors have achieved. Try to live up to them – not easy, I know – but remember, too, those many, still alive, who bought in blood and treasure the liberties that we and the world enjoy today.
Recessions come and go, but in the great pantheon of the gods, you – a little people living on less than 1 per cent of the world’s land surface – occupy a special place. You have done wondrous things. For all our many and grievous faults, I remain convinced that history will be kind to us.
Now go out to get some gold and lay on the greatest show on Earth!