Memories worth having

Is it worth it 
A new winter coat and shoes for the wife 
And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday

Elvis Costello, Shipbuilding, 1983

The trouble with utilitarianism, apart from ethics, is its simplistic view of reality. Born in an age of ascendant science, it likes to reduce everything to a calculation that, when it is worked out, will give a definitive answer.

The Games of the 30th Olympiad are barely concluded, the last medals awarded just 36 hours ago, and we’re back to the question that preoccupied so many people in the run up to the games: was it worth it? And, by ‘worth it’, they actually mean was it profitable? Did Britain make more money than it spent—or is there at least the prospect that the money will come back to us in years to come?

(No one seems to think that that a rich country with a high standard of living should be glad—even in a time of relative austerity—to shoulder the burden on behalf 190 or so other much poorer countries, most of whom will never be in a position even to bid for the honour.)

The truth is no one knows what it cost to stage the Olympic Games in London. We know what the budget was supposed to be and we know what it became, but neither figure corresponds much with what it actually cost.

Defining what should and what should not be included in the calculation is all but impossible. What about the costs incurred and gladly met by the 70,000 volunteers whose contribution has been rightly praised? And why is the creation of a new park from a wasteland an Olympic cost, when similar regeneration projects are undertaken year after year to clean up the remaining effects of the industrialisation evoked in the opening ceremony? We’d have had to clean up Stratford sooner or later.

Similarly, although economists, tourism chiefs and academics make projections about the money that has or will come in, none of them knows. The best they can do is use more or less clever, more or less accurate, models to provide a calculation. Must we always be calculating?

Behind all this is what actually happened in the meetings of tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, and organisers from 204 countries, in the interaction of volunteers, performers and spectators, in the distant participation of television, Internet and radio audiences around the world.

Behind it is the example of years of effort and exceptional achievement on the day, the joy of success and the bitterness of defeat, but always, always working to be the best a person can be. Behind it is an ideal of altruism and generosity, of human unity, which doesn’t mean less because we fail to live up to it. What matters is that we want to.

Let the politicians, businessmen and pundits argue about whether it was profitable. They seem to live somewhere else these days.

Most people seemed to decide that the 30th Olympiad was worth the effort during the opening ceremony and that the joy and the tears, the laughter and the excitement, of the subsequent days have only made that feeling stronger.

It was worth doing because it brought out the best in us, athletes, organisers and spectators, and we should try to remember that as the arguments start again. It’s the kind of memory that really is worth it.

With all the will in the world 
Diving for dear life 
When we could be diving for pearls 

Elvis Costello, Shipbuilding, 1983