London Olympics 2012: Now is the time for sport to take centre stage

WHAT persuades a normally rational person to part with hard-earned cash to watch Turkey play Angola in the preliminary stages of a women’s basketball tournament? With apologies to the female basketball players of said countries, and the otherwise right-thinking friend of mine in question, it can only be the excitement of a home Olympics.

It’s the same giddy impulse that drew thousands of Glaswegians to Hampden Park to watch Honduras play Morocco, hardly titans of world football and not known for their Scottish fanbases, in a group fixture yesterday afternoon; the same sense of doing something now, before the chance passes, perhaps forever, that has tempted millions of us to line the streets and applaud the torch relay.

Because this is the point: what we are about to witness in London over the next two weeks we will almost certainly never live to see here again. Prominent individual sporting occasions will return, fleetingly, but the greatest names in track and field, swimming, cycling and the full kaleidoscope of disciplines that make up the Olympics – some of whom, like Usain Bolt, are the best to have ever lived – competing here simultaneously? That is truly a one-off.

It has been easy to lapse into cynicism and tire of hype since London was awarded the Games in July 2005. Seven years is a vast wait and on occasions 27 July 2012 has seemed a mirage, never quite in reach. In that context, perhaps some disenchantment about budget, security and transport has been understandable.

But the real problem is that, until now, we have been bereft of the one overwhelming positive – the sport itself and the carnival spirit the Games are sure to generate – to outweigh the negatives. In the context of the vast celebration and the excitement of the Olympics those concerns will seem trifling, the gripes drowned out by cheers.

Let’s demolish them one by one. The cost of the Games has been huge, although the vast majority has been funded by the private sector and, ultimately, it’s too late to carp about. Yes, we are part-funding it, but aside from leaving the country there is little to be done about it. In short, we are paying for it whether we like it or not, so we might as well enjoy ourselves.

The row over security and the failure of G4S to provide the number of guards promised has been the latest issue to cast a shadow. It has been embarrassing, certainly, for the government and the company itself, and inconvenient for some soldiers called upon to compensate for the shortfall. But for the person on the street it is of little direct consequence. The sight of military around the Olympic Park might be alien to us – although perhaps less so for many visitors – but there is something more reassuring about a well-drilled soldier safeguarding a huge potential terrorist target during a time of increased threat than the pimply youth in a polo shirt who waved me into the Olympic Park yesterday.

Which leaves us with transport disruption – or, as the rest of us know it, normality. Because it’s not as if we are used to a paradise of clockwork efficiency in which Underground trains are never late, don’t stop mid-tunnel when you are most in a hurry, and in which entire lines are out of action for maintenance work for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. So unpredictable are London buses that they have become proverbial, while complaining about trains is so quintessentially British it deserves a spot in Danny Boyle’s stereotype-prodding opening ceremony. So transport may be tricky – ‘twas ever thus, at least this time we have a good reason.

Instead let’s take pride in a host of gleaming new venues – many of them, such as the cycling velodrome, the aquatics centre and the basketball arena, architectural wonders – delivered in plenty of time (remember Athens?). There, and at enviable historic venues such as Lord’s, Wimbledon and Wembley, our athletes will have their best ever chance of winning medals. They are all on our doorstep and in a little over two weeks they will all be gone again, never to be seen by our eyes again. It’s time to celebrate it, Turkey v Angola in the women’s basketball preliminaries and all.

Frank Dalleres is sports editor of City A.M. You can follow him on Twitter @frankdalleres