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Why Britain doesn't love the Olympics

Workers put final touches on the Mall near Buckingham Palace. The Mall closes to traffic during the Games, irritating many Britons.

Story highlights

  • Timothy Stanley: The British are irritated by the inconveniences caused by Olympics
  • He says it's because recession has caused crisis in confidence since London first won the bid
  • He says the Games are plagued by overspending, infrastructure glitches, threat of rail strike
  • Stanley: Yes, Brits are pessimists but also masochists, and they may just pull off Games

Last week, I tried to cross St. James' Park in London and found my path blocked by a uniformed soldier. I asked him what he was doing there and he replied, somewhat incredulously, that he was guarding the Olympics. That I had forgotten the park was being closed off for the event, or that I didn't much care, speaks volumes about my attitude toward the Games. I found a different exit and when I finally arrived at the pub -- jolly angry about being five minutes late -- I told everyone about the incident in the park as if it was the greatest civil rights infringement since Abu Ghraib. Never stand between an Englishman and his pint of beer.

My attitude toward London's hosting of the Olympic Games is not unusual; the mood among many Brits ranges from disinterest to hostility. In a recent article in The New York Times, Sarah Lyall put this down to the British obsession with "expecting the worst." She wrote, "Even in the best of times, whinging, as Britons call the persistent low-grade grousing that is their default response to life's challenges, is part of the national condition -- as integral to the country's character as its Eeyoreish attitude toward the weather."

There's some truth in Lyall's view (we are a nation of pessimists), but she didn't reach the heart of why the feeling is so acute this time. Beyond the constant threat of rain in summer, the British have a concrete reason for anxiety about the Games. Recession has plunged our country into a paralyzing crisis of confidence.

The Britain that won the Olympic bid in 2005 was very different from the Britain of today. That Britain had experienced several years of sustained growth, with low unemployment and practically nonexistent inflation. Britain was booming and London was swinging. The Olympics offered the chance to transform the landscape of the remaining poor parts of the capital and showcase it to the world as a confident, modern metropolis.

Timothy Stanley

The credit crunch ended the good times. The financial sector upon which the boom was built collapsed, and succeeding governments were forced to cut spending, bringing poverty and riots. A parliamentary expenses scandal that caught members of Parliament defrauding the taxpayers gave the impression that the recession was caused as much by greed as incompetence.

Overnight, the savvy bureaucrats who won us the Olympics became, in the eyes of many, the crooked fools who would surely run it into the ground. That popular misgiving was captured in a brilliant BBC comedy called "Twenty Twelve," which parodied the vacuity and incompetence of the Olympics staff in a series of farces that were re-enacted as tragedy in real life.

Many of the British complaints surrounding the Olympics reflect our understandable concern that our government just isn't up to managing it. At a staggering $15 billion, the cost of hosting the Games has already gone way over budget -- mostly because the government couldn't attract private firms to invest in the event. It is expected to pump $20 billion to $25 billion back into the economy, but only so much of that will be recouped by the taxman.

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The odd thing is that even with the drastic overspend the event is full of infrastructure glitches. Traffic congestion from the airports to the capital is notoriously bad and several drivers have actually lost their way. (One team had to use an iPhone to guide the driver to its hotel). The UK's railways are performing no better. Some railway workers have responded to the challenge of congestion in fine patriotic fashion by threatening to go on strike. Nothing says "Welcome to the UK" like a picket line and a replacement bus service.

The event's private security contractor, G4S, was forced to admit that it was short of staff and asked the army to step in to help. The result: More than 18,200 army personnel have now been deployed to patrol the Games. Combined with the ubiquitous Olympics flags and the Nazi-inspired torch relay that has been touring the country, the presence of soldiers on the streets has created the atmosphere of an occupation. It's a psychological challenge to the UK's libertarian instincts. A 70-year old man in Scotland was questioned by police simply because he wrote to the local newspaper to threaten to protest the "fascist" character of the Olympics.

None of these problems is unique to the UK. But Britain happens to be the first Western nation to host the Games since the credit crunch, so it is we who are also the first to be tested. We won the bid during an age of optimism but must now see out our contract in an age of recession. These are austerity Olympics. There will probably be many more to come.

However, there is hope. Britain's unexpected win in the Tour de France has upped interest in our long-forgotten sporting prowess, and the nation is more in the mood for victory than we were a couple of weeks ago. Moreover, our latent cynicism can be deceptive.

It is balanced by what we call the "Dunkirk spirit," named after the heroic escape of thousands of British troops from France at the beginning of World War II. It's shorthand for the ability of our country to convert a loss into a win, to defy global expectations by pulling off a last-minute coup. We showed it during the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations, when hours of pouring rain actually seemed to encourage the British crowd to have even more of a good time.

Yes, the British are pessimists. But we are also masochists, which is why we might yet rise to the challenge.

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