Now that the hysteria has subsided, Brian Richardson asks whether the Olympics lived up to their promise
"It just cannot get better than this! This is us, our time, our country, our Mo Farah. Crowd of our time; tears of our time. Hope for all time." Those were the words with which journalist Jon Snow greeted Mohammed Farah's victory in the Men's Olympic 5,000 metres final. Elsewhere there was similar hysteria as commentators rushed to celebrate "Team GB". London 2012 was, we were told, a triumph for the nation.
I have previously confessed in these pages that I am a sports fanatic. I also live in Stratford, the main host borough, and was one of the lucky few who managed to secure tickets to the Olympic. Much of the sport was exhilarating and there was a real camaraderie amongst competitors, volunteers and spectators from all over the world. Flag waving aside, there is something to be said about the affection with which spectators cheered the likes of Farah, a refugee from war-torn Somalia, and the mixed race Jessica Ennis to victory. There was almost universal admiration for Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and Kenyan runner David Rudisha. That spirit of international friendship was in stark contrast to the snarling and machismo we habitually see at football matches.
Inevitably, the euphoria has been compared to the events of a year ago when riots erupted just miles from the Olympic Park and spread across England. We were repeatedly told that August 2012 represented the real character of Britain in stark contrast to August 2011.
Such assertions are dangerously complacent. The Olympic Games will not be returning to Britain any time soon, but it is a fair bet that there will be further unrest on the streets. None of the issues that brought people out onto the streets have been seriously addressed. The cover-ups of deaths in custody continue and young people are still bullied by the police. If a fraction of the £11 billion that was lavished on the Olympics had been spent on providing training, jobs and services for young people last summer's riots might never have happened.
The £264 million spent this year on funding elite athletes through UK Sport works out at over £4 million for each of the 65 medals that Team GB secured. Moreover, the percentage of this funding that is given to pursuits that are largely the preserve of the privileged few, such as rowing, sailing and canoeing is staggering. Many people cycle, but they are not provided with millions of pounds to ride around an indoor track chasing after a man on a moped. And, frankly, who cares about dressage or clay pigeon shooting?
It is no coincidence that one third of Team GB's medal winners were privately educated. Former test cricketer Geoffrey Boycott recently remarked that Eton had some of the finest pitches he had ever practised on. The hypocrisy of the two Old Etonians David Cameron and Boris Johnson is quite breathtaking. Days before the Olympics began, Cameron's government reduced the amount of outdoor space that must be available at schools. At the conclusion of the 5,000 metres race he declared, "Mo Farah is a true British hero." Compare that to his spiteful attacks on multiculturalism.
On the final Saturday of the Olympics I spent the day in Victoria Park, Tower Hamlets. The park was a hive of activity with people running, jumping, skating, cycling and playing ball. They didn't need to be lectured about inclusivity or recreation by patronising politicians.
Cameron sneers at activities such as Indian dancing, arguing that children should play games where there are winners and losers. Yet this obsession could easily act as a disincentive to young people. The self-esteem of generations of schoolchildren is crushed if they find themselves ignored and humiliated when teams are being picked in PE lessons.
Even now, 30 years on, I can still recall the name and face of the boy with spina bifida who was always the last to be chosen. By contrast, I was among the favoured few, one of the first picks every time. Ultimately, however, my own love of football and rugby was destroyed by coaches who castigated us for "only" winning 7-0 and by public schoolboys who screamed "Kill the nigger" whenever I received the ball.
What we need is leisure time away from the stresses of life, nutritious and affordable food, and a range of recreational facilities. Those are, of course, the things that are under threat from this government. Returning to that day in the park my attention was drawn to a baby boy struggling to take his first steps while his proud father stood over him. As I watched the infant, considered the challenges that confront us now that the party is over and contemplated a truly worthwhile legacy I was reminded of Leon Trotsky's poignant observation: "Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full."