And what a time it was, and what a time. Here’s a festive quiz question. What do you get if you cross Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, Ali Bongo, Boris Johnson and Robert Mugabe? Answer: a VIP guest box at the London 2012 opening ceremony!
A time of innocence. A time of confidence. A time of mob-handed despots on a summer junket, so many in fact that those Games are still ranked as the second-largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled – discounting UN summits, none of which have been able to boast the humbling spectacle of soon-to-be-impeached Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff watching the Kinks get out of a taxi.
Looking back now it is hard to get past the opening ceremony, that seductive pop-art collage of a happy, potent nation making a cheerful bonfire of its own past, re-minting its future, sweeping away division and the mummified remains of empire. Oh yes.
Remember the nurses. Remember Kenneth Branagh pretending to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel pretending to be Caliban. Remember the humble-brag confidence of those brilliant creative images. Viewed through that haze, London 2012 feels like an isle of wonder in itself, a burst of light and hope bounded on either side by its own drizzly summer.
Or so it seemed at the time. From another angle London 2012 looks like something else. This is in many ways a raft of skeletons. On the eve of the Games, Sebastian Coe had given a wonderful speech about the purity of sport, about its cleansing properties, its astringent morality. Seven years on, London 2012 is the most dope-ridden Olympics ever staged, with the most positive tests, most stripped gold medallists and still, whisper it, a tide of unanswered questions beneath the in-house highlights reel. Even the iconography of that impossibly stirring ceremony feels more like a plea for something to be preserved. The NHS, pride of the nation. How’s that working out?
And how about that much-trumpeted legacy? Coe’s own star has soared. Gongs have been passed around. But the Games themselves ran way over budget, left a dubious infrastructure in place and coincided with a continuing dip in child sport participation and an obesity crisis that benefits only London 2012’s Big Junk Food sponsors.
In fact, peel back the layers of artifice and the most tangible legacy of London 2012 is probably Johnson, whose career was energised by his ability to ride the currents as London mayor, minting his public image as a rainmaker and a grand projects man. Take away the bunting and the stage raft, and there’s a fair chance we don’t get Boris the statesman, the plastic Churchill, inspiring a generation, getting Brexit done, whatever.
Why talk about this now, other than the urge to rub some astringent salt into the wounds? Blame the Russians. This week the World Anti-Doping Agency handed out a four-year ban on competing under the Russian flag, with football and a few other sports excepted. The ban is entirely deserved, a response to the dissembling and lies of the Russian authorities in the face of Wada’s doping probe. But the response to it has also been significant, with many calling instead for a total ban on anyone with a Russian passport. Clean or dirty doesn’t matter. Being Russian is enough.
On Wednesday, Sir Hugh Robertson, chair of the British Olympic Association, declared the entire Russian nation had “shown no contrition or respect for the Olympic movement”, thoughts echoed by Ben Hawes of the BOA Athletes Commission, who demanded “undeniable proof” Russian athletes are clean.
At which point it is worth taking a breath. Why so righteous? Why the sudden blast of British Athletic Exceptionalism, a way of engaging with the world that has always been there, but which has suffered a kind of multiplier effect in the years since the success of London 2012, and on the back of which Robertson received his knighthood and current status as global athletic morality chief-inspector.
Never mind the obvious riposte to this, the fact it is absurd, dehumanising and borderline xenophobic to call for a ban on every single person of a shared nationality, to ban clean athletes from competing simply for the crime of being born within those borders. More to the point, very few sporting nations are qualified to talk with such absolute punitive certainty about the failings of others. And let’s be clear: Britain isn’t one of them right now.
Bradley Wiggins literally rang the Olympic Bell at Robertson’s Games, happily pollen- and mucus-free thanks to the contents of his powerful jiffy bag, and days after a Tour De France victory many think should be annulled. How does that look to a Russian? Talking of allergies, a third of all Team Sky riders, and 70% of top British swimmers, have asthma compared with 8-10% in the wider population, a perfectly natural side-effect of training according to experts. Asthma, thyroid problems: these are some hugely unlucky very healthy people.
Rectitude! Absolute proof of cleanliness! How does that sit with the knowledge Mo Farah started training with a now-banned coach a year before his poster-boy role at London 2012. State-sponsored doping is a terrible crime against sport but what about outsourced, privately run dubious practices?
The sense of blind righteousness is jarring here. Stringent, strict liability bans for anyone casting the slightest shade on the purity of sport: is that really the precedent those closest to home want to set? One theme of the reviews of that London 2012 opening ceremony was the idea that in the brilliant new future there would be no need any more for British irony. That part, at least, appears to have come true.