This morning's Today programme was awash with Olympic chatter, on the basis that the London 2012 games begin one year today. It was a shame that the annointed 'sceptic', Simon Jenkins, seemed to be muzzelling many of his deeper-lying suspicions, which he regularly airs in the pages of The Guardian. Perhaps he's afraid of becoming positioned in the Iain Sinclair curmudgeon camp.
One of the monstrous absurdities that the 2012 project manager was asked to defend was the fact that delivery of the games is proudly still "on budget", but that "budget" has mutated from £3bn to £9bn in the six years since London's bid was accepted. Somehow this £6bn discrepancy (double what is being cut from university tuition, for example) doesn't seem to provoke much riotting.
The contradictions of this whole hideous venture pile up higher and higher. According to the games' proponents, London is apparently hosting them because it is the "best city in the world", but also so as to regenerate this blighted part of East London; but why should the rest of the UK be pouring money into a marshy wasteland, in a city that is quite so full of itself? If there is one place in the UK that can afford a little geo-economic redistribution right now, it is London, and if there are two locales that might assist with this, it is the clusters of skyscrapers sited on either side of the Oympic park. Mightn't the rest of the UK wonder whether the £14bn of bank bonuses paid in the last 12 months could help to pick up more of the £9bn bill? The Olympics only adds to the manifold problems of London's snobbery, exceptionalism and nauseating self-regard (and I write as a lifelong resident). Its economy and housing market is pulling further and further away from the rest of Britain's, a trend that the current Depression is only exacerbating, and to pretend that London either needs or deserves this sort of investment is simply anti-democratic. At least when the KLF set fire to £1m, they did it with their own money and in the Outer Hebrides.
Then there is the rest of the 'legacy'. Hilariously, the radio coverage this morning went straight from Tessa Jowell (Labour's Olympic Minister) arguing that the £270m swimming pool would serve as a resource for the 'local community' (for the 34th time, nobody fucking lives round there) to an interview with an Olympic swimmer praising the pool for being three metres deep, and therefore extra 'fast'. That'll be nice for mothers and toddlers day, then. When will somebody realise that elite sports, by their very nature, lend themselves to a culture of mass spectatorship, not one of participation. At least the Tories have had the decency to admit that sporting spectacles have nothing to do with health and fitness generally, as the BMJ confirmed last year.
Instead, the whole occasion will be a wonderful opportunity for 'us' to stuff our faces with junk food, and for 'them' to hide from their sovereign debt problems. Many of my friends have bought tickets, but not one of them seems to know why. Instead, they mutter apologetically about javelin-throwing, boxing, women's wrestling, men's high-ball-synchronised-jumping, a little confused as to how their life paths are crossing with such inanities, but equally resigned to the fact that this party is about to blow through their city and only a kill-joy would resist. The attitude seems to be that if the neighbours are blasting out woefully bad music at 4am, the only spirited response is to yawn, don some clothes and shoes, and go and join them for a glass of something unwelcome.
And here's the rub. Every time some yappy bastard offspring of Seb Coe and Tony Blair is wheeled out to defend this money-burning exercise, they frame it in terms of finally overthrowing British cynicism. A false dichotomy is erected, between some pre-Thatcherite nation of losers, cynics and conservatives, and the heroic optimists who (as that nice Mr Murdoch's company likes to say in their adverts) 'believe in better'. Which side are you on? Cynic or achiever? Loser or winner? The ideal type of the traditional, British loser is doing considerable ideological work in all of this, by cajoling those who are neither winners nor losers, to embrace these piles of useless concrete that have conjealed all over Hackney. No rational, critical position on any of this is permitted.
As Benedict Anderson has argued, national identities and nationalism only make sense by force of comparison. It is meaningless to talk of the British being 'cynical', without also asking who we are (allegedly) more cynical than. Of course this comparative compulsion also serves the Olympic spirit further, by helping to organise humanity into tabulations of quantified characteristics. This brain is bigger than that one. That child is slower than this one. London 2012 is deemed obligatory, necessary and praise-worthy, because the alternative is some nation that we are desparately afraid of being: the cynical, ironic nation, that naysayers are nihilistically hell-bent on preserving.
A more honest appraisal of this 'cynicism' might recognise the lurking inferiority we feel with regards to the two Enlightenment republican nation states with which we constantly compare ourselves, France and the United States. Yet if we are more 'cynical' and 'ironic' than them, it is not because we are instinctively wedded to the past or sceptical of the future, it's because we British have no option but to laugh at our version of modernity. We do pre-modernity very well, and post-modernity equally well - often, as in Prince Charles's beloved Poundbury, at the same time - but have never taken seriously that which lies in between. We have no founding myth nor any feeling (because it aint true) that the people are the font of power. What is it, precisely, that the British are being invited to feel sincere and enthusiastic about?
For Seb Coe, McKinseys, Tessa Jowell, Prince William and whoever else to arrive this late in the day and bully us into believing we are a nation of optimists, athletes and 'winners', as the only legitimate alternative to pessimists, cynics and 'losers', won't wash. Being modern means more than getting signature architects and American project management companies to tear up a piece of marshland, and kicking out a few canal boat residents. Being optimistic means more than flattening all obstacles to one's will, through sheer managerial firepower. Enlightenment neither was nor is an exercise in 'delivering on budget and on time', and human autonomy has precious little to do with winning, or for that matter watching men's badminton over a Big Mac and fries.
Fortunately for the 2012 organisers, the entire affair, from Olympic committee down to playground athletics, is resolutely anti-democratic, so there is no risk of popular or majority will interfering in this cult of delivery any time soon.