10 Aug 2012, 00:05
It's been utterly fantastic, no? Inspiring, beautiful, captivating, life-affirming, there have not been enough superlatives.
The fiesta of palpable optimism that has centred on east London for the past fortnight has offered a perfect, and all too short, Olympic antidote to the unrelenting economic miserabilism that has dominated the past four years, not to mention the unique brand of wryly-amused cynicism that has come to characterise a country no longer certain of its place in the world.
The commentariat is right for once. The Olympics really has triggered a remarkable outburst of national pride and civility. We've seen the perfect balance of individual achievement and community effort, efficient infrastructure and human interaction, patriotism and internationalism, all topped off with some of the most blisteringly inspiring athletic performances in the history of mankind.
Inevitably there have been imperfections. The pre-games security fiasco provided yet more evidence that when the private sector screws, up the state, this time in the form of the military, has to wade in to clean up the mess. The sponsorship arrangements, and in particular the synthesis of junk food purveyors and world class athletes, will always grate, while the sheer number of sought-after tickets handed out to free-loading "dignitaries" was anything but dignified.
But these really are minor gripes compared to the genuinely up-lifting performances and the much needed reminder that UK can still deliver achievements worthy of the description "world-class".
There are also important environmental lessons and accomplishments that can be taken from London 2012.
The most obvious triumphs come in London's delivery of what are indisputably the greenest games ever.
I fully appreciate this is not the same as delivering Games that are genuinely green. Critics are entirely justified in pointing out that these kind of international pow-wows have immense environmental impacts. A genuinely green games would have been smaller, would have made greater use of existing infrastructure, would have resolved the legacy issues that continue to dog the Olympic park and raise the prospect that the stadium will be left as a beautiful white elephant, and would have lived up to the original pledge to make the games renewables-powered.
But these Games have still been significantly greener than any that have gone before and have arguably done more to showcase green technologies and designs than any major public event in recent history.
I was lucky enough to get tickets for an event on Tuesday (three metre springboard diving semi-final, since you ask – it was great fun) and walking around the park what was immediately obvious was both how striking the wind turbines, solar panels, recycled shipping containers as TV studios, and carefully crafted green spaces looked, and how modern yet unobtrusive they felt. These greener designs and technologies are now an entirely normal feature of our urban fabric, just as the behind the scenes deployment of highly efficient combined heat and power units, natural air cooling systems, energy management technologies, and recycled building materials (to name just a handful of the Olympic venues' green features) are the norm for any construction firm that wants to take part in flagship projects.
But for me, London 2012's value as a green infrastructure case study is dwarfed by its value as a socio-economic, cultural, and political demonstration of the art of the possible.
The success of the London Olympics and Team GB are the result of the near decade long effort to first win and then deliver the games and the 16 year effort to professionalise elite sport that followed the ignominy of Great Britain winning just one gold medal at Atlanta 96. Both projects have been delivered with unerring dedication, extremely high degrees of professionalism, at times controversially large levels of investment, and for the most part non-partisan political support.
It is true that success has many parents and failure is an orphan, but what has been noticeable about the (let's be honest, rather unedifying) political clamour to take ownership for the success of London 2012 is the sheer number of figures who can justifiably take a small amount of credit for the last two weeks.
In rough chronological order, it was John Major who gave the National Lottery the silver lining of ploughing millions into minority sports, while it was Tony Blair's Labour that put the brakes on the previous government's school playing field sell off (although sadly failed to halt it completely), made physical education a central part of the curriculum again (regardless of what Rupert Murdoch thinks), and took the politically brave decision of bidding for the Games in the first place. Countless figures from across the political spectrum played a crucial role in winning the games, before Conservative peer Lord Coe then took up his role as organiser-in-chief, behaving in an impeccably politically non-partisan manner throughout. Labour ministers and Mayor Ken Livingstone also helped lay the foundations, before handing the baton to the coalition and Mayor Boris to successfully finish the job.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, the public and private sector worked effectively in unison to deliver the key Olympic sites, just as sponsors, communities, councils, and most importantly families, coaches, and athletes worked unbelievably hard for little or no immediate reward to deliver the sporting spectacle we have been privileged to see over the past two weeks. It has been humbling to watch.
It has also been an inspiring template for how large scale infrastructure and social transformations can be achieved. I know I am succumbing to the most wishful of thinking, but imagine if just a fraction of the political consensus, detailed planning, public enthusiasm, individual, community, and corporate commitment, and ineffable sense of civic pride that has characterised the Olympics was somehow applied to the national rollout of cleaner, greener, and healthier modern infrastructure.
We've actually already got a snap shot of what this might look like with London's recent cycling boom, and the hugely encouraging emergence of community renewable energy projects and the transition town movement. Now the challenge is to apply this multi-faceted Olympic model more widely to the low carbon revolution.
I'm not suggesting for a single second you will be able to inspire people to take an interest in wind turbines and insulation in the same way that you can inspire them to take an interest in sport. But there are valuable parallels, particularly in the way the Olympics has demonstrated the immense value of non-partisan political support and the critical importance of adopting a "we'll do what it takes" approach to a project (coincidentally, this unerring, cross-platform commitment was also apparent in a very different type of infrastructure project this week as NASA confirmed it had landed the most advanced probe to date on Mars).
Given ministers were willing to bankroll the Olympics to the tune of over £9bn on the promise of returns that are entirely intangible, it really should be possible to convince them to provide more visible and generous support for green infrastructure projects that offer both demonstrable returns and harder to quantify quality of life benefits. Moreover, the Games' "inspire a generation" motto once again demonstrates that it is possible to mobilise public support for investments that benefit the next generation without lapsing into the cloying "think of the children" rhetoric that too often hampers the green movement.
It has long been argued that we need a Manhattan Project approach to rapidly building the green infrastructure we need to tackle our numerous environmental challenges, but I'd suggest London 2012 provides a far more welcoming, less militaristic template for the sociological, technological, economic, cultural, and political transformation that has to take place.
As it happens Lord Coe is going to be out of a job in the next few weeks, do you reckon it might be possible to convince him to lead the UK's green technology rollout?
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray