Games prove a lightning rod for the world’s tensions

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Less than 21 hours elapsed between the announcement that London had been awarded the 2012 Olympics and the first of the bomb explosions in the city. And the dramatic change in the expressions of Britain’s political leaders will be used to illustrate the contrast: from the elation of success, to abject horror, and despair at the wickedness of the world.

Another contrast is also certain to be drawn: between the innocent wonder of sport represented by the Olympics and the barbarous nihilism represented by the terrorists. This is of course true, and the sooner this page can return to writing about sprint finishes and forehand winners, the happier the world will be.

But it is not the whole truth. The Olympics are so huge that they cannot be apolitical. Britain wants to use the games to further its standing in the world, and it dare not screw up. It means the Olympics will be a major element in the country’s politics and diplomacy (eventually, perhaps, THE major element) for the next seven years.

The modern Olympics lost its innocence very early on. In 1906, during the now-disregarded ““Intercalated Games” in Athens – an early version of the event now generally disregarded – the Greek police killed three protesters; in 1968 Mexican police killed hundreds.

Before then, Hitler had used the 1936 games in Berlin as a showcase for his ideology. And the Moscow and Los Angeles games of 1980 and 1984, offering competing visions of rigid communism and cheesy capitalism, pursued the same policy only a little more subtly. The intrusion of terrorism at Munich in 1972 was not an aberration, but a consequence of the high stakes. Every modern Olympics has represented a mighty investment by the host government in terms of its reputation, with the sole exception of Atlanta 1996, when the US were so cocksure they blew it.

In Britain the connection between sport and politics is perhaps stronger than anywhere else. And the Blair government has been more conscious than any of its predecessors of sport’s hold on the popular imagination. If the England football team should win next year’s World Cup in Germany (a less forlorn hope than usual), the government will interpose itself into the celebrations, and can be expected to hand out knighthoods with a freedom not seen since the days of the Round Table.

Cricket, the country’s most idiosyncratic sport, is perpetually bedevilled by politics, mainly because it is only played between members of the Commonwealth, each with their own neurotic love-hate relationship with their former colonisers. For decades, the game was torn apart over whether or not to exclude the white-run tyranny of South Africa. Now, that history is being re-run over the black-run tyranny of Zimbabwe.

In the days of apartheid, those who argued for continuing the cricket accused the pro-boycott camp of “mixing sport and politics”. It was an absurd argument then. It is even more absurd where the Olympics are concerned. We shall probably never know whether in some way the timing of the Olympic decision, as well as the G8 summit, influenced the timing of the attacks. But you could argue that, in any case, the Olympics have become a lightning rod for the world’s tensions more than a means of soothing them.

Before the bombers struck on Thursday, I was musing to myself how the intervening years in Britain might go, based partly on the Sydney experience. I assumed the initial euphoria might last nearer 21 days than 21 hours, but believed that eventually even the BBC would get tired of puffing its chest out, and we would move into phase two.

This comes alongside the realisation that seven years is a long haul, and counting 2,575 days from now until July 27 2012 is a tedious way of passing the time. A period of general indifference can be expected, except from those about to be displaced by the construction of Olympic facilities or anxious to be in on the action.

Phase three would be alienation, as Londoners in particular realise they have to pay for this event, both financially and via a downgrading of any non-Olympic-related project. The first hints of incompetence and malfeasance in the system might emerge around this time (circa 2007?), and it will probably become fashionable to debunk the whole thing. This could easily last right through 2011.

Then imminence should have a magical effect, and the enthusiasm glimpsed briefly on Wednesday should work its way through the city and the country. That ought to carry the games through to glorious success. Finally, there is phase five, when the whole thing is over, and people ask “Is that it? What was that all for?”

This timetable has gone horribly wrong already. We must hope and pray that there will be never be another week like this one, before the 2012 Olympics, during, or ever after. But the politics of it all will be an ever-present factor in British life for the next seven years.

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