Dominic Lawson: Is there a political pay-off to the Olympics?

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Who was the biggest winner of the Games of the 30th Olympiad? 1. Usain Bolt? 2. Mo Farah? 3. The USA team? Technically the answer must be 3, as the USA conclusively regained first place from China, whether counted by number of golds or medals overall. But that is not the post-Olympic battle now galvanising politicians and those who follow that most brutally competitive of pursuits: the fight for electoral triumph.

On the left come the claims that the great Olympic show was entirely the result of the work of the Labour government, and merely inherited by the current administration. The more ideological among them have been hammering out the message that the whole thing is a demonstration of the power of centrally directed public spending on a vast scale - 11 billion pounds, more or less - to do what the private sector could never have pulled off.

On the other side, there have been claims by the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan that the nationalist fervour is a shattering rebuke to the ambitions of those wanting to subsume our identity into a European melange; and by Scottish Unionists that the embrace of the Union Jack by the gold medallists Andy Murray and Sir Chris Hoy is a devastating setback for the ambitions of Alex Salmond to achieve independence for Scotland.

Naturally, the Prime Minister has done his best to co-opt the success of "Team GB": on Sunday he posed with Mo Farah outside 10 Downing Street and on the same day he appeared as the author of an article in the Sunday Times observing that "Our society has let the volunteer spirit and the competitive spirit slip in recent years". A few days earlier Cameron had weighed in with an artfully-timed attack on the "all must have prizes" culture among the educational theorists of the left.

(Indeed, the so-called "elite sports" funding provided to our best athletes - already in receipt of substantial appearance fees - by a 28 per cent levy on a national lottery engaged in disproportionately by the poorest is socialism in reverse: to each according to his ability, from each according to his need.)

Anyway, both sides of the political divide seem to be agreed that the London Mayor Boris Johnson has, in his inimitably idiosyncratic manner, brilliantly exploited the Olympic Games to advance his own claims to future leadership of his party - and perhaps, of the country. As a former classics scholar, Johnson is certainly aware that this political subtext to the Games of the Olympiad is as old as the event itself - which of course predates the ancient Roman form of electioneering satirised by Juvenal as "panem et circenses".

From Professor Panos Valavanis of the University of Athens, who has written books on this subject, we learn that "In ancient Greece, even just turning up was politically influential. The ruling classes of the Greek cities sought to attend not only to watch the Games, but also to engage in politics at a personal or state level. The attendance... of each city's delegation served as propaganda for community identity and interstate rivalry."

Yet if I were Ed Miliband, I would not be too bothered by the way David Cameron seemed always to be popping up in the prime seats next to members of the Royal Family, as this or that British athlete burst through to take yet another gold medal. Whatever the overall support for the Olympics, there are millions of Britons thoroughly cheesed off by their inability to get tickets to the Games: yesterday the market research firm Survation published a poll showing that only 12.5 per cent of the public agreed with the statement "The ticket allocation was well executed". The great majority, who did not agree with that proposition, might well have seen the cheering Prime Minister at the Velodrome or the Olympic Stadium and rather than associate him with our triumphant athletes instead be thinking "It's alright for him, with a free all-areas VIP pass".

In fact both Cameron and Johnson are realistic enough to know that any political gains from an Olympic feel-good factor are likely to be ephemeral, at best. In an interview with the Evening Standard last week the Mayor observed of his triumphant pre-Olympic rally in Hyde Park: "This will all come crashing down. Adulation is fine. But we all know these things are cyclical... there are going to be some very hard yards after the Games are over."

I'll say. The next General Election, in all probability, will not be until 2015. If by then economic recovery is well-established, with unemployment falling rapidly, then that would be the reason why the next occupant of Number 10 will be Conservative. If, by contrast, the economy has failed to show any signs of growth and even shrinks further, then David Cameron would be well advised to look for a new career; and that would be the case even had Britain won 50 gold medals at London 2012 and consigned the mighty USA to second place.

Still, the myth that electoral outcomes are greatly influenced by national sporting success is a persistent one. For example, it is frequently asserted that the nationwide euphoria after England won the Football World Cup in 1966 was responsible for the re-election in 1966 of Harold Wilson's Labour government, and that his administration was booted out by the public in the wake of disappointment at England's loss in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals.

The first problem with this theory is that the 1966 general election took place on 31 March. The England team's World Cup Final win over West Germany happened on 30 July. The second is that while the loss to the same opponents in 1970 was indeed in the lead-up to the election, the opinion pollsters of the day observed that the real culprit (as far as Labour were concerned) was the publication of truly dreadful trade figures only three days before the nation voted. As Harold Wilson remarked at the time "governance of a country has nothing to do with its football fixtures".

One would hope not, anyway: if athletic, rather than economic, success were the key to popular support then the Soviet Union would still be going strong - and so would East Germany. In the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, East Germany, with a population of barely 17 million, came second with 37 gold medals, ahead of the US. A year later its entire system of government collapsed. That tells you all you need to know about the relevance of sporting success to the real demands of the public.

- THE INDEPENDENT

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