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The first torchbearer

Who do we have to thank most for our glorious Olympic summer?

Who do we have to thank most for our glorious Olympic summer? Tony Blair? Ken Livingstone? Seb Coe? Tessa Jowell? No. The driving force behind Britain’s triumphant 2012 bid was Gareth Thomas, Labour MP for Harrow West.

“Gareth was the first one to pick it up,” says a former Blair adviser. “Before anyone else was interested, he was putting down PQs [parliamentary questions] about the costs and benefits and making little parliamentary interventions.” Thomas’s lonely campaign culminated in a meeting with Blair in the autumn of 2001.

“That was a key moment,” says an insider. “Gareth came round behind the back of the Speaker’s chair after PMQs to Tony’s office. Up until then, he [Blair] had been very cautious. There had been some bad experiences over the Manchester bid.”

Thomas knew precisely what buttons to press. “Gareth was pushing this vision of what the whole thing would look like. Modern London. Modern Labour. Tony started to get attracted by the boldness of the whole thing.”

Blair may have been – but others remained wary. One sceptic was Alastair Campbell, who didn’t want his man associated with a high-profile failure. Patrick Hennessy, the Sunday Telegraph’s political editor, recently tweeted an article he wrote for the Evening Standard in January 2002 which provided the first indication that Downing Street was entertaining a bid. The final paragraph reads: “Asked if Tony Blair was personally enthused by the Olympic idea, his spokesman replied today that things were a long way from headlines which might read: ‘Blair backs bid for 2012 Olympics’.”

Even when Blair began to warm to the idea – prompted in no small measure by Jowell’s enthusiastic framing of what it would mean for his legacy – obstacles remained. Among the principal ones was Gordon Brown, who worried over the cost. “Gordon was initially dead set against the idea,” says a former supporter. “Then someone pointed out that if everything went to plan, it would be him standing next to the Queen at the opening ceremony. After that, his opposition waned a bit.”

Riding the wave

Right up until the end, there were few in Downing Street who believed that the bid would succeed. I remember speaking at the start of 2005 to a No 10 adviser who told me: “Just off to a meeting about our 2012 bid. Ha, ha. Paris has it in the bag.”

Paris didn’t, of course, and the rest is history. Yet even at this late hour, quite a few seem intent on squabbling over it. “It would be nice every now and then to hear David Cameron and Boris Johnson and co pay proper tribute to their predecessors in making it all happen,” Campbell blogged the other day.

Fat chance. Cameron’s attempts to appear at the scene of every British medal triumph would put John Terry to shame, while Johnson is determined to ride the Olympic wave – if not the zip line – all the way to Downing Street.

But they are mere bit players in the great British Olympic narrative. Blair, Campbell, Cameron and Johnson can scrap among themselves over who basks in the glow of the sacred flame. Gareth Thomas, a grateful nation salutes you.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism