In the past it took a disaster to bring the Olympics to London. In 1908 the city stepped in after Vesuvius erupted, leaving Rome bereft. In 1948 it was called upon to rescue the Olympic ideal for a Europe ravaged by fascist dictatorship. Now, for the first time, Britain's capital has won the Games without having to rely on external intervention. And rather like Kelly Holmes's remarkable middle-distance triumphs last year, this is a spectacular performance after years of underachievement. For once, the sceptics and cynics should step back and allow the country to savour success.
The victory presents a spectacular opportunity, not only for London, but for the whole of the United Kingdom to change its ways. We have many demons to slay, among them a xenophobia still encouraged in parts of our print media, an inability to cope with the grands projets at which the French, until now, have proved so adept, and a lingering suspicion of the role of the state in the planning of our cities and arenas. The first problem may dissipate with time, or perhaps there may be no cure for it. The latter two are the more intriguing, and the success of the 2012 adventure will depend upon our approach to them.
Paris was able to present the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with real buildings to inspect. London's, by contrast, was a virtual bid. Not a single major venue exists. Whereas the French had showed that they could put up the Stade de France in a jiffy, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and the long-delayed and still-to-be-completed Wembley Mk II (not to mention the ghostly Picketts Lock Stadium) stand as symbols of our ineptitude.
Throw in, variously, the two failed Manchester bids, the Crossrail train link through London that refuses to be built, the carbuncular British Library and (what the heck) the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square and we have the mak-ings of Olympic gold in the delay, cost overrun and architectural eyesore contests.
But that was then, we told the IOC; that was the old, pre-millennial Britain. Now, the message goes, we have changed, and to prove it we can parade a great range of new stadiums, art galleries and other public edifices that have done our cities proud. Perhaps. Impressive individual parts they may be, but what about the whole? We still have much to prove here and we will need a different attitude of mind.
There has been, and will be, much talk about urban regeneration and about financial benefits, but neither is really relevant. As London expands inexorably, sucking in much of the country and much of Europe, so its centre of gravity is already shifting eastwards. The Thames Gateway is one of the most ambitious planning projects of recent decades, and on its heels much of the regeneration of the lower Lea Valley would eventually take place, with or without the Olympics.
As for direct financial gain from the Games, that is likely to be negligible. If past events are a guide, the burden on the exchequer could be great. Montreal will only next year finish paying off the debt for hosting the 1976 event. Even Sydney in 2000 and Athens 2004 - the two most successful games of modern times - have cost taxpayers dear. The Chinese are throwing money at Beijing for 2008 (though that is one set of balance sheets we will never see). The London organisers say that, of the anticipated £8.7bn of projected capital spending, roughly £6bn was earmarked anyway for roads and railways over the next seven years. The best estimate for jobs is a temporary extra 300,000 (in a city that already has to search far and wide for most forms of labour), while an estimated 500,000 extra tourists could bring in a modest £500m.
Such calculations ignore the true benefits of the Games, which, besides offering us ringside seats for a great spectacle of world sport, can be valuable and even lasting. The Olympics could help draw us out of our island mentality; they could encourage a volunteer spirit that is too often drowned out by our obsession with personal financial gain; and they could engender renewed respect for the public realm, a notion that Margaret Thatcher sought to destroy and that the Labour government dare not fully promote.
The great paradox of the 2012 project is that, in order to succeed in coming years, the victors will have to adopt many of the habits of the vanquished. Many, possibly most, of our modern political and cultural reflexes will not be appropriate for this task. Our atomised, short-termist society is going to have to think big again. It will have to act more collectively. It will even have to learn to love the idea of planning. A Gallic victory by proxy.
Talking 'bout Who's generation?
There is nothing worse, the Live 8 detractors say, than rock stars pretending to be politicians and politicians pretending to be rock stars. There is: baby boomers pretending they are still cool and daring to believe they can still influence the nation's young.
The sight of The Who and Pink Floyd reassembling in Hyde Park will have sent shares in Zimmer-frame manufacturers soaring. But what about the music business? News from the retail front suggests that sales of oldie albums have boomed in recent days - perhaps only because these purchasers have still to learn how to download. Maybe a real shift in the nation's tastes is afoot? A generation brought up on house, garage and rap will soon embrace . . . Procol Harum? The Eagles? One banner in the crowd ("My mum loves Dido") suggests a reverse trend is also in evidence. What will generational cross-dressing do for the health of our nation?