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Performers are seen at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, Sunday August 12/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Performers are seen at the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England, Sunday August 12/2012. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

London 2012

Olympic elation envelops host nation Add to ...

On a patch of land scarred black by the industrial revolution, bombed flat by Hitler and denuded by decades of poverty and neglect, a country with little money and less self-confidence held the world’s most expensive and difficult sporting event.

And when it ended in a spectacle of pomp-free pop and quintessentially East London polyglot pageantry, there was a very surprising national sense of elation: Nobody had expected such a seamless 17 days of sport, such a mellow reception to 100,000 guests and such an extraordinary haul of medals for the hosts.

The mood of national euphoria – and it can be witnessed far beyond the tightly controlled bubble of London – has been cathartic and entirely unexpected. Right up through the opening week of the Games, it was being called the shambolympics – an event defined by eye-bleeding budget overruns, ham-fisted sponsors, security fiascoes and acres of incomprehensibly empty stadium seats. Britain has had a recent history of botching big, expensive events, such as the millennium celebrations or the re-opening of Wembley Stadium.The ebullient mood is a welcome reprise after a 12-month period that began with riots and descended into multiple quarters of recession, a budget that slashed public services and non-stop rain.

The question now is whether the Olympics will deliver a lasting boost, or simply a massive, very typically British, morning-after hangover.

On the political level, there is reason for skepticism: While London Mayor Boris Johnson managed to make himself an unlikely star of the Games, largely through the sort of comic self-effacement that defined the opening and closing ceremonies, and may be able to use this for a future in national politics, few expect Prime Minister David Cameron to benefit.

“Oh, I don’t think he can be expecting any political dividends beyond September,” said Tony Travers of the London School of Economics, a specialist in British politics. “That never happens – and there are too many unpleasant things on his agenda.”

Nor is any economic benefit likely. While the construction industry had a small boost resulting from the $14.5-billion worth of public spending on the Games, there was no other significant economic spinoff – in fact, several industries declined as a result.

Among those was tourism, which by some measures is Britain’s second largest industry after finance. London experienced the typical Summer Games effect, in which the prospect of Olympic crowds (estimated at 100,000 per day) drove away most of the usual non-Olympic tourists (at least 300,000). As a result, London seemed like a ghost town, an effect seen across Britain.

“All the signs are that the Olympics have not delivered additional visitors to London and the U.K.,” tourism-industry lobbyist Mary Rance told Agence France-Presse. “In fact, it is expected that numbers may well end up having fallen by well over 30 per cent.” That downturn could last for years, if the Sydney and Athens games are a precedent.

Spencer Dale, the chief economist for the Bank of England, told reporters that the Games would provide only “a small positive contribution” to the economy, through ticket sales and TV rights, which could slightly boost GDP in the third quarter. But on the whole, he said, the Games will not have “a material impact on our projections.”

Perhaps for that reason, Mr. Cameron has chosen to focus on the least likely legacy of the Games: athletic education.

Britain, benefiting from the famous Olympic host-country advantage in spades, garnered an impressive number of medals – 29 golds, its best in more than a century, and enough, given the size of its population, to make Britain the most successful Olympic nation by some measures.

Despite this, Mr. Cameron took the opportunity to criticize his country’s system of sports education, claiming in a speech that schools devote too much time to such non-competitive pursuits as “Indian dancing.” (The closing ceremony organizers, perhaps in an effort to snub this remark, included a prominent segment of Indian dancing.)

“We are saying: Out with the bureaucratic, anti-risk culture which has led to a death of competitive sport in too many schools,” Mr. Cameron said, “and in with the belief that competition is healthy, that winning and losing is an important part of growing up.”

That may have backfired, drawing attention to the fact that an inordinate number of Britain’s medalists were graduates of elite private schools. And studies have already shown that the Olympic-budget spending on athletic education has so far failed to pay any dividends – another effect typical of Olympic host nations.

So September may prove to be anticlimactic on the political, economic and athletic level. But there will be the ineffable value of having organized a very large, very happy event with virtually no flaws, and having looked very good before the world – something that Britain once took for granted, and is likely to enjoy remembering for some time.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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