Should we have been so surprised that the Games were a success?

The trail of clues was there if you wanted to notice.

Britain surprised itself with its happy self-confidence during the London 2012 Olympics - the most inclusive celebration of who we are that anybody can remember. Hosting the world meant telling it a story – and so we had to decide what we wanted to say, and to believe, about ourselves. Our hopes and fears jostled for supremacy, in a year mixing economic anxiety with great national events. Yet, the nearer that the moment came, those often dominant national narratives of British decline – that ours is a broken society, heading towards the break-up of Britain, as our unhappy, overcrowded island goes to hell in a handcart – felt just a little too miserable to fit the bill. 

Still, the commentarian jury ummed and erred to the eve of the Games. Was Britain capable of putting the Games on without transport and security disasters? Would anybody outside London give a damn if they did? A would-be American President, who had hosted a B list Olympics somewhere in Utah was, naturally, savaged for voicing similar concerns.

Yet, all along, something else had been bubbling up from below. The trail of clues had been there if you had wanted to notice. There had been the (surprisingly) enthusiastic public participation in June’s Jubilee festivities, then the (surprisingly) large crowds who had greeted the Olympic flame hundreds of miles from London, the (surprising) number of applicants to be among tens of thousands of volunteers, and the (surprisingly) strong desire to say “I was there” which saw every ticket for handball, taekwondo and Greco-Roman wrestling eagerly snapped up. There were even thousands of Union Jacks being waved in Paris as an Englishman in a yellow jersey rode his bicycle up the Champs Elysees to clinch the Tour de France, generously sharing the pre-Olympic spirit with the would-be hosts who were pipped at the post. Still we wondered whether people really wanted to embrace the Olympics. 

It began with the (gobsmackingly) brilliant opening ceremony, watched with awe by a (surprisingly) massive audience of 27 million, as Danny Boyle responded to the scale of Beijing’s spectacle with our British celebration of democratic dissonance, never afraid to mildly baffle the global audience as we used the moment to have that conversation, by ourselves, about ourselves and for ourselves, that we have really meant to get around to for many years. 

Then, the sport. We talk about our tradition of heroic sporting failure, though Team GB had done (surprisingly) much better in Beijing four years before, and English cricketers tending to beat the Australians too. But nobody expected Britain to be quite this (surprisingly) good at sport, so that it sometimes seemed that you could barely risk putting the kettle on without missing the next athletics or cycling gold medal.

67% of the British public have been surprised by how much Britain brought us together. But do spare a thought for the miserabilists. Those who made a point of getting out of the country to avoid the whole Olympic nightmare have returned to a country they struggle to recognise. They are keeping their heads down through the popular Paralympics and the Victory Parade, and expect to get their country back by October. Perhaps the spirit of 2012 will be a mirage, never to be repeated until, several decades from now, a big Royal celebration and a great sporting event happen to coincide again. But there is a public appetite.

So let’s stop talking as if we need to “reclaim the flag” from the extreme fringe, when the inclusive meaning of the Union Jack today is better represented in children’s face-paint than flailing neo-fascism. Let’s remember that everybody British has more than one flag – and fly Saltires, Welsh Dragons and St George’s Crosses too. And let’s treat Humphrey Keeper’s singing in the opening moments of the opening ceremony as the cultural moment that “Jerusalem” became the English anthem that it has been missing – and ask the sports’ governing bodies to catch up.

Let’s welcome new citizens with what we all want to share. Why not have a day each year when 18 year olds and new Britons from overseas come together in town halls to celebrate becoming citizens. It could give the rest of us a chance, too, to “renew” vows to our country that we have never got to make in person.

Let’s treasure the BBC, the institution which can still, in this age of the Ipod and Ipad, binds tens of millions of us into national moments that we share. And let’s seek from it a real public service commitment to proactively building audiences for women’s sport, so it is not just in prime-time once every four years, but can help schools and sports clubs to inspire our daughters too with sporting heroines to emulate. So let’s bring back Grandstand on Saturdays (and Superstars too).

And let’s talk frankly about every difficult issues our societies face, from immigration to opportunity for the next generation. But we need never again take seriously anybody who produces miserabilist polemics declaring Britain a “third world country”. 

We liked being the people that we were this Olympic year. For it to change our society for good would be an unexpected surprise. But if we really wanted it too, it could.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.

British Future's new report How 2012 should boost Britain is published today.

Fireworks light up the sky above the arena during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games. Photograph: Getty Images.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit