I am beginning to feel that the 2012 London Olympics will be dripping in post-speculative melancholia, my preferred term for any hubristic financialised excess that was dreamt up pre-2008 but has then hung around since as an expensive embarrassment. Every time I hear Seb Coe's dulcet tones on the radio (he was at it again this morning, explaining the intricacies of some torch or something, in between news items about the collapse of European governments) I feel sorry for a man trapped in a Blairite economic timewarp. They should bury him in a box under a tree in the Blue Peter garden, and dig him up occasionally to find out what it was like preaching business strategy in 2004.
In 2005, when London was awarded the games, the question of why they were desirable wasn't really a publicly legitimate one to ask. The Olympics were a perfect embodiment of every dominant business and political value of the time: they maximised competitiveness, of individuals, neighbourhoods, London and the UK; they were family-friendly and healthy; they were 'delivered' by a well-oiled machinery of public-private collaboration; they would show-case managerial efficiency and budgetary honesty, with 'the world watching'. The core purpose of the Olympics, in a pre-2008 universe, was to synthesise every value of that economic era. Collaboration and teamwork were celebrated - but only to the extent that they further competitiveness (collaboration and teamwork which are not in the service of competitiveness constitute cheating and/or socialism).
What do the Olympics mean today? As I took a train through the grim, nearly-Essex retail tundra of Stratford the other day, I wondered what it could all mean, what value it could still offer anybody. What answers might even sound faintly plausible by next summer? Competitiveness? I think we're all a little too worn out for that. Every claim that has been made for the games, whether fiscal or nutritional, has already turned out to be a lie, and that's before the whole thing has got going, let alone the 'legacy' that it will leave behind for a nation in decline. The £3bn budget, which magically trippled without being classified as an over-run, could have been cooked up in Goldman Sachs' Athens office.
In 2011, public-private collaboration now means something else altogether, and it has very little to do with budgetary responsibility. Instead, it refers to the core, sovereign institutions of the state drawing on all their reserves of credibility, to save the private financial sector from its own inability to speak honestly. Screw 'winning'; there are several governments, institutions and families out there who would accept 'surviving'.
Now that the neoliberal boosterish rhetoric has lost any purchase on reality, what will we see instead? A vast shopping mall, that 'fans' are forced to traverse, simply in order to get from the railway station to the sports stadia, ideally with their credit cards safely cut in half at home. We will witness weird and wonderful sports, whose rules we scarcely understand, and marvel at the contestants' determination in the face of extreme pointlessness. A giant Anish Kapoor sculpture has gone up, an ironic coda to the era of iconic 'signature' urban structures, which once acted as the bureau de changes for the conversion of financial into cultural capital and back again. We will hear half-hearted jingoism about nation and capital city, but with a sincerity vacuum at its heart.
the very things that make it cumbersome make it authentic. Its leadership and its base are one and the same thing. No corporate money sustains it; no cable station is dedicated to promoting it, no individual speaks for it.
Maybe the Olympics should aspire to a similar authenticity, offering nothing but its branding, its monolithic structures and its vast cost, without justification or any agenda. It should be impossible to ignore, but entirely reticent as to what it wants. An honest Olympics would be silent, offer no explanation for its wastage, its purpose, because it no longer has one. Seb Coe would take to the airwaves, and be entirely mute. This could be the symbolically-empty games, and our dwindling reserves of optimism could then be diverted where they are more needed.
By next summer, the Olympic Park will be a relic, before the games has even opened. It will be a testimony to the power and danger of financial error and exaggeration. Legacy? The Olympics park is already a legacy, before a single drugged-up Ukrainian has hurled a javelin in anger. It's a legacy of the last Cool-Brittanian gasp of post-imperial bravado, which, in Thatcher's wake, lured our political classes to this type of grand-standing in the first place. The public will be able to wander it, marvelling at the people who possessed legitimacy and credibility - Blair, Brown, Coe, Diamond, Goodwin - a mere five years earlier. Like an ancient temple, much of the fascination will not be with what it still conveys today, but the fact that anybody ever inhabited such a reality in the first place. Post-speculative melancholia will accompany every declaration of triumph, and ever paean to the spirit of London or sport.