LONDON – The British are feeling quite pleased with their performance not only in the games, where they came third after the United States and China in the medal league, but also because the arrangements worked well and much better than some had feared.
The host nation has the advantage of loud encouragement from the home crowds and familiarity with the scene and the climate. But for a nation of some 60 million people, British athletes did remarkably well.
There was a fair proportion of women among the medal winners. This was not by any means a totally male-dominated games. Even Saudi Arabia included women in their team.
The British team included men and women of different racial origins. The long distance champion runner Mo Farah came from what was once British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa. Jessica Ennis, the heptathlon winner and the smiling face on the games posters, is of mixed race.
The British media, at first at least, concentrated rather too much on British athletes and their prospects of winning medals, but no one could fail to be impressed by such outstanding athletes as Michael Phelps, the U.S. swimmer, or Usain Bolt, the Jamaican champion sprinter.
There were inevitably one or two occasions when the decisions of judges and referees were challenged, but there was little real acrimony. The winners shed as many tears of joy as the losers wept in sorrow or chagrin.
Only once did the spectators feel impelled to boo; this was when badminton players, trying to ensure that they would have the easier option in the semifinals, deliberately played to lose their match. There was no sympathy for them when they were sent home in disgrace.
Fortunately there do not seem to have been any significant signs that competing athletes were using banned substances. The strict drugs testing regime appears to have worked.
The volunteers who welcomed spectators won plaudits for their helpful and cheerful behavior. The army, navy and air force men and women, who had to fill the gaps left as a result of the ineptitude of the private security contractors (G4S), also won praise for their efficiency.
Many had worried that London Transport would not be able to cope with the unprecedented number of visitors, but although there was congestion and some delays, the system managed to cope.
The shops in the West End of London did not do well. The visitors naturally gave priority to watching the games. If they could not get tickets, there was all-day and all- evening coverage of the games on large and small screens. British people had been strongly discouraged from coming into central London and cars had been deterred from entering the West End and the City by a retiming of traffic lights.
The biggest moan was over the way in which tickets had been allocated to the International Olympic Committees and sponsors. There were fewer empty seats as the games progressed and most venues were packed. The costly closing ceremony appealed to popular taste and was much applauded.
Now that all the fun and sport are over, the focus is on the legacy for Britain from the huge costs involved in putting on the games. These amounted to the equivalent of some $14 billion, much more than originally estimated.
A rundown part of East London has been regenerated and impressive arenas built, but few of them can be used on a regular basis and will have to be adapted at further cost. The Olympic village will be turned into housing. There is a shortage of affordable homes in London. So this will be one tangible benefit.
The British Olympic Committee and the British media hope that British success in the games will lead more young men and women to take up Olympic sports, but in today’s economic climate. It will be difficult for the government to find additional resources to subsidize sporting facilities. The government hopes that the private sector will fill the gap, but while no doubt some private donors will come forward, it seems unlikely that the amounts forthcoming will be sufficient to match the needs if British athletes are to perform equally well in Rio in four years time.
The government also needs to consider the role of sports in education. They hope that competitive sports will reduce the growing problem of obesity among young people in Britain — the so-called couch-potato syndrome of too much television watching. But there will be little new money for school playing fields, gyms and swimming pools.
Ministers also see competitive sports as one way of inducing young people to be ambitious and entrepreneurial. They deplore what they see as the leftwing bias among some teachers who want to limit competition in schools because they fear that this may lead under-performers to lose self-confidence and because it is in their view elitist. But the Olympic Games are inevitably elitist, and in the modern world, if Britain is to compete effectively against the likes of China, we need an intelligent and active elite.
The government hope that another legacy of the Olympic games will be a surge in self-confidence and will lead to increased foreign investment.
But this could be wishful thinking. Increases in productivity are needed. The recent increase in employment is welcome but this has been worryingly accompanied by a small decline in GDP.
The Para-Olympics are still to come. They will undoubtedly focus attention on the problems and challenges facing the disabled.
There are lessons from the London games for other countries including Japan, which is seeking the games after Rio. One legacy of the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 was the huge development of Japanese infrastructure especially in roads and railways. If the Olympics come to Japan in the future, Japanese leaders will have to think carefully not only about costs but also the likely “legacy.”
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.