At last we were circling over a grey Cornish landscape, and as we came into land at RNAS Culdrose I knew it was going to be all right. We could see the size of the crowds – not the local dignitaries, but members of the public who were pressed up against the perimeter fence. As Seb Coe and David Beckham carried that flame down the steps, I heard the cheers – and for nine weeks of that amazing torch relay, the excitement continued to build.
I think Seb understood it better than the rest of us in London, because he was often out there with the crowds as the torch moved around Britain. We were lost in what seemed to be an intensifying nightmare of technical problems. Every day we would talk before breakfast on a conference call – the mayoralty, Locog, TfL, the Met – and I hope the CIA never release the transcripts of those conversations, because they were sometimes beyond satire.
One day we were told that the M4 bridge from Heathrow was about to collapse, and that a key section of the Olympic route network might have to be abandoned. The next day the bus drivers decided to go on strike. Then the taxi drivers got in on the act and blockaded the city – one of them actually parked his vehicle on Tower Bridge, handed the keys to a police officer and jumped off.
Then we had the mystery of the missing 5,000 security guards who seemed to have found more exciting things to do than turn up to the Olympics. I remember one morning when two security guards did deign to appear – and announced that they had a bomb, a scare that miraculously never found its way into the papers. Then there was the panic about the weather, and at one stage the forecast for the opening ceremony was so dodgy that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport decided to buy 80,000 plastic ponchos. Presumably they are in a warehouse somewhere. As the world began to descend on London, our apprehension continued to mount.
One Locog driver missed the entrance to the Olympic Park and took a team of American athletes half way to Southend. Then the papers decided that the whole thing was going to be a frost, and that some perfectly reasonable mayoral Tube announcements had driven people out of London; and for a day or so, I admit that I gave in to the same belief. What if we had spent billions on the biggest party in the world, and nobody came?
Then the flame came back to London, and you could feel the Olympomania spreading like crackling gorse; and on the night of the opening ceremony David Beckham drove it in a speedboat downriver to the park, and it lit up Thomas Heatherwick’s beautiful cauldron. And after that opening ceremony – or at least by the middle of the first week, when British medals began to trickle in – it was clear that the whole thing was going to be huge, much bigger than we had ever imagined, much the biggest thing we had ever taken part in. For the rest of that summer, everything failed spectacularly to go wrong. The transport system functioned superbly, and showed the world how mass transit systems were opening up east London as never before.
The athletes of Team GB and Paralympics GB achieved the astonishing feat of coming third in the global medals table. The weather was broadly excellent. The volunteers captured the imagination of the whole country, and people would break into cheers at the very mention of their names.
It all went so well, in fact, that you might be tempted to conclude that we could not have gone wrong; that we were doomed to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth. A year on from the Games, it is more vital than ever that we learn the real lesson of the London Olympics – that they were the result of superb and meticulous planning.
It was an effort that brought together public and private sector, and that went beyond party and beyond government, and that went on for as much as a decade.
As soon as I was elected Mayor in 2008 I was embroiled in the Olympics, and it rapidly became clear that this was a special kind of project. It wasn’t just that the calibre of the executives was superb – Paul Deighton and Seb at Locog, David Higgins and John Armitt at the ODA. It was also clear to me that everyone was motivated by a zeal, an excitement, that you so rarely find in any kind of governmental activity.
It wasn’t just that the idea of the Games was thrilling in itself. It was also important that we knew what the deadline was – it was there in the logo! We knew exactly what success would look like and what failure would feel like.
We knew what the budget was, and we knew we would pay a grievous price for excess.
So people worked with an urgency and a passion that we need now to import to other aspects of British life. David Cameron has complained that central government can be agonisingly slow in getting things done – and he is right. Look at the dither and disaster of our national strategy for energy supply, where we are now in the humbling position of having to beg the French to help us build nuclear reactors.
Look at the torturous process of getting planning permissions for new homes, when there is abundant brownfield land in this country that could be developed. Think of the legal expense and complication that goes with any new piece of infrastructure, the billions and billions – literally – that are poured down the gullets of lawyers and consultants before any new track is laid. Look at our miserable and hopeless aviation strategy, where we are being left behind by our European rivals. If we are going to succeed in the global race we need that Olympic formula: a ruthless timetable, budgets that cannot be broken, the public and private sector working together on a clearly defined long term programme – and the threat of immortal pain and embarrassment for failure; and that is why it is such good news that Paul (now Lord) Deighton is at the heart of government, as infrastructure minister.
Yes, we need and will achieve an economic, sporting and volunteering legacy from the Games.
But we need to remember that energy and drive with which Seb and co did it. That is the real Olympic lesson, and that is the flame we need to keep alive.