LONDON -- Be careful if you run into Brits for the next little while: They're under a spell. Specifically, they have a bad case of Olympic Fever.
They're giddy because nothing bad happened at the Games, because the British team won a lot of medals -- and, oh yes, because the weather was sunny and warm for most of the fortnight. Out of such modest pleasures -- and the solid entertainment afforded by the BBC's live, non-stop, all-you-can-eat televising of the events -- they have forged a temporary suspension of mordancy, skepticism and crankiness that normally form the iron triangle of British national character.
They have, based on personal conversations with Londoners and with the outpouring of rhapsodical praise from the media, bought whole-heartedly into the premise of the event's slogan, "Inspire a Generation" -- so much so that if the motto had been "Making Golden Coins Fall From the Sky," more than half the populace would be standing out in the garden today with outstretched buckets.
That "inspiration" is thought to take many forms. Some, particularly in the political class, prefer to believe that the Games have imbued the country with a healthy dose of optimism, drive and can-do ambition -- in short, to have turned the Brits into Yanks. To a certain extent, they're right. Never again can British people indulge their amused condescension at the American penchant for flag-waving. In case you didn't notice, the stage for the closing Olympic ceremony was a gigantic Union Jack. Between the Queen's Jubilee and the Games, the country itself has been festooned with more flags -- gigantic, tiny, and in between -- than decorate the dreamscapes of Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan and David Petraeus combined. Even while heading for your gate at Heathrow, you would have encountered a giddy volunteer avid to hand you a paper flag and urging you to wave it "furiously."
For lots of other folks, there's a sincere belief that two weeks of watching televised athletic competition will solve Britain's social problems. The rush to retailers, reported by as sober a paper as The Guardian, to buy cycles and rowing machines, doesn't make Brits envision garages a year hence filled with rusting equipment; rather, they see young people eager to emulate hard-working athletes instead of vapid reality-show "stars." One can hope that way, but one might not want to bet that way. An early test will come in two weeks, when the Notting Hill Carnival, now feared by many white folks in the neighborhood as the setting for opportunistic crime, manifests instead an outburst of innocent and joyous running and leaping. We are all Usain Bolt!
David Cameron's government, reading the polls and listening to call-in radio, is exploiting this feeling by calling for mandatory competitive team sports in all primary schools, so as to teach the unique lessons of that experience. My childhood may have been unique, but all such a regime would have taught me was to hate school.
Intense temporary events like the Games are almost designed to trigger such popular fevers. New Orleans during the two weeks of Carnival undergoes a similar crescendo of benign craziness, but the event, being annual, leaves not a mental trace the following morning, except the desire to do it again a year later. But the British media have stoked the fires of this fever relentlessly. Once it became clear there would be no cockup and no scandal, the words "wonder" and "magic" flowed like a river of gobsmacked mush not only from the tabloids but from staid "serious" papers and from the "Olympic broadcaster," the Beeb. In the latter case, the teenage-crushness of the coverage can be partially explained as a reaction to the onslaught of criticism the Corporation got for its Jubilee coverage as crass and ignorant.
But in Monday's special commemorative editions of the papers -- Print Lives! -- one could read analyses in which, between the "wonder" and the "magic," one could learn that, thanks especially to the opening ceremony, 50 years of nagging post-Empire doubt as to Britain's role in the world had been resolved. Its role is to be creative, wacky, and self-deprecating. Tell that to the Iraqis and the Afghans. They thought Britain's role in the world was to be America's war poodle.
We'll soon see whether the "legacy" projects -- new neighborhoods in the long-blighted Stratford area, the shiny and endless new luxury mall adjoining the Olympic stadium, and the school sports regime -- pay off the bloated cost to the public budget of this fortnight festival of fun and national pride. Perhaps they will, or perhaps the Athletes Village retrofitted with kitchens will not become the hot new urban address, and the Prada and Gucci stores in that Westfield mall will have been replaced by discount outlets by the time Rio welcomes the world.
In the meantime, do be gentle with the Brits. They can't help themselves. They've partied hard, and the hangover has not yet arrived.