With the moment of truth nearly upon us, the great danger of the London Olympics is not, I think, that they’ll be a failure, just an anticlimax. They won’t be disastrous, just a bit naff. Brits will win medals. The Tube will probably cope. But from the smallest things upwards, the London Games give the overwhelming impression of being run by people with no taste, no imagination, and no idea how to have fun.
I still remember Beijing 2008. I was lucky enough to go. The Bird’s Nest stadium stood there, more random and more beautiful than any mere camera lens could show, its outer tendrils waving in white against a blood-red interior. The Water Cube aquatic centre, the colour changes stealing gradually across its tortoiseshell sides, made a hard building into something soft and subtle and permeable.
In London, by contrast, it is hard to believe how ordinary everything is. The signature colour is grey. You enter through a shopping centre. The Olympics’ grand boulevard, Stratford High Street, is a half-built canyon of production-line ‘luxury apartments’. Cycling down it over the last three years, I kept thinking: give them a chance, they can’t have finished this yet. With two weeks to go, the awful truth now dawns: they have.
In the west of the Olympic Park there is, I’m told, grass and trees. But from the main approach on the other side, there isn’t a speck of greenery, just grey steel fences and blobby, mostly grey buildings. On one side is the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture, red metal tresses flailing around. On the other is the water-polo arena, a cut-price copy of Beijing’s Water Cube, looking like something cut out of a hoodie’s quilted jacket. It, too, is grey. The only ambitious thing, the aquatic centre, has been temporarily ruined by banks of extra seating. Glimpsed between the other buildings — where are the grand vistas? — the stadium itself just looks rather small.
The best view of this Shangri-La, for those without tickets, is from the third floor of John Lewis in Stratford. This is also the shop’s ‘Official London 2012 Store’, allowing further fingertip examination of the taste crime scene. The shelves bulge with unsold polyester mutants from a particularly dark Seventies Doctor Who. These turn out to be the Games mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville. Each has one eye, in the middle of the forehead, no mouth, no nose, no head or neck, and two pointy lumps poking from its backside. When you press Wenlock’s foot, he plays the ‘official mascot song’ and writhes. The other mascot has been decorated with a London cab’s ‘For Hire’ sign. Taxi for Mandeville!
It is easy, of course, to mock Olympic tat, but so low are the standards at London 2012 that it is also virtually a public duty. The star item — pure Abigail’s Party — was the set of ‘official London 2012 Olympic Games rowing salad servers’, five spatulas shaped like rowing blades, yours for just £95 in shimmering stainless steel. They were presented in a box which seemed velvet-lined, but which on closer inspection turned out to be cardboard printed to look like velvet. The other standout for me was the commemorative Olympic 50p coin — which retailed at (ahem) £3, an unconscious surrogate for the Games’ entire relationship with the British taxpayer.
Wenlock, Mandeville, or someone else with an eye missing must have chosen the Olympic colours: hot purple, lime green, and aqua. Banners in this palette now vandalise key London lamp-posts. The volunteer uniforms consist of purple tops with red epaulettes, bigger on one shoulder than on the other, worn with flapping beige slacks and big white trainers. The logo is already too well-known a disaster to mention. But even the typeface used for routine notices, with its 15-degree lean, spiky angles and general air of having been knocked up in someone’s school lunchbreak, has been described by the writer Simon Garfield as the worst font in history.
London’s jewels have also contracted the Olympic taste lurgy. At Tower Bridge, to coincide with its display of the five Games rings, the more-than-adequate floodlighting has been replaced, at huge expense, with a new sub-Vegas scheme that makes the bridge look like its Disneyland copy. The towers are lit up in green, blue and yellow, the suspension chains lined with Christmas tree lights. Sponsors’ corporate logos are projected. In Greenwich, scene of the Olympic equestrian events, the Cutty Sark has been swamped by a giant smoked-glass greenhouse.
Creativity of the kind London now enjoys relies on the unpredictable, the individual and the spontaneous. It relies on letting go. But the Olympics, with their surface-to-air missiles protecting their sponsored fast-food bubble, are locked into a world of fences and control. Just as the Games are physically sealed off from London’s people, so are they quarantined from its true creative spirit.
The public appears to have noticed all this: one of the most striking things about the London Olympics is how resolutely unmoved we all are by the whole business. Even now, with a fortnight to go, it is not much of a topic of conversation. Excitement levels, as measured by the opinion polls, are low. When the torch relay hit, promised Locog’s chief executive Paul Deighton, excitement would be ‘turbo-charged’. In fact, according to polling done last month, only 42 per cent profess themselves excited by the Games, with 54 per cent not. Even in London, only 45 per were excited, versus 49 per cent not. Earlier this year, Mr Deighton spoke of his worries that people had ‘no idea’ of the joys that awaited them. I think they know only too well, Paul.
The great Olympic lie has always been that the Games boost the standing of their host cities. Only three times in the last 40 years — Beijing, Sydney and Barcelona — has this in fact been true; only once, in Barcelona, has it produced tangible economic benefits; and for Munich, Montreal, Moscow, Atlanta and Athens, the Olympics were a PR disaster. The risk for London is simply that the Games will not give a fair account of our matchless city. We are already much bigger than the Olympics: another reason why it was absurd to bid. But we could end up being diminished by it, with the world shown a face of regimentation, ugliness and mediocrity.
You can, of course, do a lot with coloured lights and TV camera angles. Much will rest on the opening ceremony; nobody could describe its director, Danny Boyle, or some of its performers as second-rate. But we must still cross our fingers that we’re not aesthetically shamed before the world: winning not so much the gold medal, more the gold Rolls-Royce.