The Royal Mint has struck a series of coins to commemorate the 2012 London Olympics. Each depicts a sporting event and a Roman god. No, you have not misread that last sentence, nor have I mistyped it. The Royal Mint doesn’t know its Mars from its Ares. The howler is cast in 22-karat gold for all to see. The Mint has not issued an apology or expressed embarrassment. There has been, however, a retrospective explanation: As the motto of the revived Greek Olympics is in the Latin language, it is right for the gods of those who spoke it to appear on Olympic coins.
In the feebleness of that excuse lies a sad significance: The destruction of British education is complete. Brits know that a long time ago, there were Greeks and Romans, and Greek and Roman gods; but they know nothing of who they were or what they did. And the nation is disconnected not only from world history, but from its own past. English schools now turn out youngsters for whom Nelson is an ex-president of South Africa, and Wellington the mere name of a boot. We are living in an age in which a television journalist can describe a hat worn by the Duchess of Cambridge at the recent Jubilee celebrations as “made by Lockes, who made Nelson’s hat for the battle of Waterloo.” Most viewers will have nodded approvingly, impressed.
A land in which history is a blur is a good place to stage the contemporary Olympics, for it provides an audience easily taken in by its invented myths. Television commentary on the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony was delivered with the hush and awe appropriate to an act of timeless solemnity; viewers were not troubled by the knowledge that this neopagan nonsense was only inserted into the modern Olympics in 1928. A BBC radio journalist describing the start of the torch relay told an audience that knew no better that he was describing an “ancient tradition” founded “centuries” ago. The ritual was invented for the Führer in 1936.
But it wasn’t ignorance that won the Olympics for London; other places are at least its equal in that. No: London got the Games through gamesmanship. One way it beat Paris in the 2005 race to win the venue was by using performance-enhancing technology. When members of the International Olympic Committee visited the city to give it the once-over, quite astonishing steps were taken to prevent them from experiencing the gridlock that is London traffic. Every inch of their car journeys was tracked by satellites and CCTV cameras; every time they approached a traffic light, it was switched to green. To be fair—and fairness was once an English characteristic—the traffic concealed from the grands fromages olympiques seven years ago will not trouble their chauffeur-driven limos in London this summer. The same trick will be played, but they have been told about it. Indeed, they have been promised it, along with 250 miles of lanes for the exclusive use of athletes and officials, so that—like the Politburo in Soviet Moscow—no ordinary mortal can impede their progress. Promises like these were made to persuade the IOC to opt for London rather than Paris. These promises, at least, will be kept.
The same cannot be said for the assurance our politicians made in 2005, when they looked us in the eye and said the games would cost £2.4 billion. We knew they were lying, just as they did. When two years later they had to admit that the cost had almost quadrupled, to £9.3 billion, they did so brazenly, though their tone was less haughty when they conceded that private-sector contributions had fallen to a tiny two percent. The latest estimate, using figures disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, puts the final bill at £24 billion—precisely ten times the figure originally claimed.
How did that happen? Through dishonesty. I am not talking about corruption and backhanders—though on a project of this size it is unlikely that there hasn’t been some, at least, of both. The dishonesty I am talking about is self-deception: There are no lies more costly than the lies one tells oneself. The big one is that the whole enterprise is so noble that no expense should be spared in honoring it, and the embodiment of this deferential delusion is the London Olympics logo. It cost £400,000 to design, and any reader of this magazine would make a better job of it. But when it was unveiled in 2007, it was greeted by a display of synchronized grinning. Officials told us and one another that it was “dynamic” and “vibrant,” and the president of the IOC called it “a truly innovative brand” that would appeal to the young. The truth is that it is none of these things. It is an embarrassment. It is incoherent. It is a dud. And it cost a bomb.
Allow me to describe it to you—though I could not do so from memory, for it is so artistically disjointed and iconographically illiterate that it is impossible to hold it in the mind. It is an arrangement of five asymmetrical polygonal shapes. None contains a right angle. The middle one is much smaller than the other four. One has to be told that the four big ones represent the figures 2, 0, 1, and 2—not least because the 0 has no characteristic of roundness, the 1 is like a lopsided, straight-edged boomerang, and the 2’s have dissimilar shapes. The small, central shape is inexplicable. The top left shape contains the word london, italicized, with a lower-case l. The shape to the right of it contains the five interlinked Olympic rings. By 10:00 a.m. on the day following the launch of the logo, 16,000 people had signed an online petition to have it scrapped. The design critic Stephen Bayley called it “a puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal.” But those who had commissioned it had no choice but to persuade themselves otherwise, because they could not admit they had wasted £400,000.
The reason I have described the logo rather than ask the editor to print a picture of it is that I wouldn’t want to risk getting him into trouble. All things Olympic are subject to copyright that is aggressively defended, under new laws that prohibit any kind of visual or verbal representation that suggests association with the London games. Among the hundreds of victims of its recent enforcement are a provincial florist who was made to take down five tissue paper rings with which she had sportingly decorated her shop window, and a hotel chain that could not use the words London and Olympics together when advertising accommodation for visitors to an event that I dare to refer to as the London Olympics.
All this is to make sure that the only businesses that can make any financial gain from the Olympics are its sponsors. We haven’t seen trade restriction like that here since Elizabeth I and James VI & I created monopolies in salt and paper. Cash machines that take cards other than those of official “worldwide Olympic partner” Visa have been removed from games venues, and only Visa cards can be used to buy Olympic tickets. Spectators can buy any lager they like, so long as it is Heineken—and they will have to pay the equivalent of $11.36 for a pint of it. They are not allowed to wear clothes, carry water bottles, or push pushchairs bearing nonsponsors’ logos “larger than 12cm,” and there is even a ban on planes bearing nonsponsor branding flying through the Olympic sky.
To the delusion that such commercialism can be reconciled with sportsmanship we must add the notion that the games are worthy of religious respect. When the neopagan flame-lighting ceremony was televised, the commentary was delivered with reverence worthy of a state funeral. The event was more Benny Hill than Westminster Abbey, but as a gaggle of girlish ninnies skipped about on a hilltop while an actress playing the part of a priestess harnessed the power of the sun to bring the spirit of the games alight, there was no laughter—even when the wind blew out the flame. ?A more expensive expression of pseudoreligious self-importance is in public statuary, upon which millions of pounds have been spent. The largest and most costly example is the £22 million ArcelorMittal Orbit, which has been erected beside the Olympic stadium itself. Its lopsided reality is as ugly as its name suggests. It looks like two huge industrial cranes attempting an act of vertical copulation, having drink taken. Another Olympic “sculpture” has been put up in Weymouth, at a cost of £335,000 to the public purse. It is 17 sandstone boulders, each on an eight-foot stainless-steel pole. Given that it could hardly be explained as a thing of beauty, those who spot it in a puddle on the ring road, between a roundabout and an electricity pylon, can only wonder what it might signify or represent. Steps forth the regional director of Arts Council England: “When people arrive in Weymouth for the 2012 Olympic sailing events, this sculpture will welcome them and connect the vibrant and creative place it is now with the geology and prehistory of its past.” Taurocoprology, it would appear, is an art as well as a science.
This self-imposed suspension of sensibilities extends to every expression of the London Olympics. I cannot bring myself to describe the awfulness of the misconceived London 2012 mascots, or even to name them. Suffice it to say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed mascot is king. British athletes will look marginally less ridiculous, in livery of a design that defies belief. We have a national flag that most people in the world recognize, and you might think our kit, designed by Stella McCartney, daughter of Sir Paul, would display it or its three colors. But it won’t—with the exception of the Baywatch volleyball team, who have a tiny Union Jack sewn onto their bikini-bottom seats. Keep your eye on the ball, and there is no chance of noticing it—which is not to say it won’t be seen. Britain’s other athletes have been put into kit that is just, well, weird—and the 8,000-strong army of Olympic volunteers have a pink and purple uniform so hideous that, when some of them modeled it in the presence of London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, he couldn’t stop himself saying to them, “I hope you don’t feel too ridiculous.”
Somewhere under all this ugliness, under the security drones, surveillance cameras, and police sniper posts, among more soldiers than Britain has serving in Afghanistan and an even greater number of civilian security guards, watched by almost all 3,800 members of MI5 and patrolled by 12,000 policemen, events of genuine sportsmanship will take place. The last time London hosted the Olympics, such sportsmanship was to the fore. The 1948 Games were altogether more honest. Then as now, we were living in an age of austerity, but then, we knew it—and our schoolchildren knew the difference between Romans and Greeks.
The 2012 Olympic coin set costs £10,500, by the way. What better way to commemorate an expensive mistake?