Alastair Hignell: Whatever happens now, we have had a ball in London
Flash in the pan or a shot in the arm? Magnificent monument or white elephant? Lasting legacy or momentary magic? In the immediate aftermath of the London Olympics, the questions are almost as thick on the ground as British gold medals.
The 80,000 who crammed into the Olympic Stadium for the closing ceremony and the 26 million viewers who watched the ceremony live in the UK weren't too bothered with the answers. They were intent only on celebrating what has been, by any yardstick, a wonderful occasion.
Despite all the pre-Games fears, the transport system stood up to the sternest of tests. The venues, completed on time and close to budget, were inspired, inspiring and magnificent.
The extra armed forces, called up in the wake of G4S security shortfall, were relaxed and highly professional, while the army of volunteers were rightly showered with praise. The British fans who packed the stadiums were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and generous, while the British athletes who won, narrowly failed to win, or merely made up the numbers were humble, articulate and passionate. London scrubbed up well and the weather was by and large benign. It was great to be British.
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But Olympic Games have come and gone in the past and left little of lasting value. The Montreal Games were so expensive for the Canadian city that, 36 years on, the bills are still being settled. As Michael Johnson pointed out during the BBC's excellent coverage of London 2012, the overriding concern of the Atlanta Games organisers in 1996 was to keep the debt down. Even without the euro-crisis, Greece would have been in deep financial trouble as a result of hosting the 2004 Athens Games. Australia may have earned rave reviews for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but the fact that since then Australian sport has entered the doldrums was far from a coincidence.
London made much of the idea of creating a legacy when their bid to stage these Games won approval seven years ago – without really knowing what they were promising. It's probably fair to say that as much effort has been expended by British administrators on trying to deliver this vague promise as has been expended by British athletes on actually delivering a record medal haul.
The latter has already been measured. The former is much more difficult to quantify. What does the slogan "Inspire a Generation" really mean? To some it means cranking up the conveyor-belt that has started to churn out British champions in gratifying numbers. To others it means galvanising the nation's playstation-obsessed, playing field-denied, obesity-threatened youth into taking up some sort of physical activity.
And as some of the venues specially put up for the Olympics are set to be destroyed in the next few months, it's appropriate to ask just what the legacy will look like, in physical terms. The Olympic Stadium has already been the subject of a tug of war between various football clubs – with West Ham's apparently successful bid being annulled after protests from the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Leyton Orient – as well as Essex County Cricket Club and Formula One. The likelihood is that whoever wins the tug of war, the stadium – even if it remains as an athletic venue – will be greatly diminished in size.
There's equal uncertainty about the future of the Olympic Village, while predictions of a huge boost for the British tourism industry would fly in the face of statistics recorded after the last three Olympic Games. According to a BBC Breakfast report, the numbers of visitors to Sydney, Athens and Beijing actually declined in the years following their hosting of the Olympic Games.
It could well be that the only benefit that accrues from the London Games is a change of mood. The British people have shown our good side to the world and we've been pleasantly surprised by the effect that has had on ourselves as well as others. It hasn't cost us anything to be pleasant, outgoing and generous. It has done us good to be proud, patriotic and inclusive. We have been able to laugh at ourselves for being self-deprecating and understated and we've allowed ourselves to cry for joy as well as in disappointment. We have had a ball and our athletes have done us proud. Whatever happens, or doesn't happen, as a result of these Olympic Games, it's worth remembering this.