David Owen

Fifteen years ago this week, London 2012 was declared victorious after a five-way bid battle that amounted to the most ostentatious demonstration of Olympic power and glory since the dedication of the Temple of Zeus in 457 BC.

When he thinks back now to those climactic final days in Singapore, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach would be entitled to wonder what Gods on Mount Olympus he has offended. 

Rank-and-file IOC members could be forgiven, meanwhile, for pondering how they have sunk from controlling the fate of some of the most powerful leaders on the planet, all with eyes clamped on the great Olympic prize, to a position of impotent, if comfortable, irrelevance in just a decade and a half.

If one looks ahead to what lies on the horizon, well, while a vaccine for you know what would change things, it looks increasingly as though just getting Tokyo 2020 on in whatever way shape or form so as to salvage the IOC's TV revenues would now be no mean feat.

And, while Beijing 2022, in my opinion, looks more likely to go ahead more or less intact and perhaps even with well-populated venues, China's increasingly aggressive stance on internationally-sensitive topics such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, free trade and free speech looks set to bring down a hail of criticism on the IOC, on a sort of guilt-by-association basis.

At least, surely, Bach can still look forward to a spectacular and relatively problem-free Games in 2024 – perhaps his last Olympics in the IOC hot-seat – in Paris, famed City of Light and cradle of the modern Olympic Movement.

Or can he?

Even here, even this far ahead, the COVID-19 scourge is casting a dreary shadow – in this case in conjunction with domestic politics.

London won a five-way battle for the 2012 Olympic Games 15 years ago this week ©Getty Images
London won a five-way battle for the 2012 Olympic Games 15 years ago this week ©Getty Images

I was reminded by this week's Ministerial reshuffle – which, by the by, has seen Jean-Michel Blanquer emerge as Minister for National Education, Youth and Sport, with Roxana Maracineanu reporting to him as Minister of State – that France faces a Presidential election in April/May 2022.

As in 2017, one is obliged to ask: "What are the chances of far right figurehead Marine Le Pen emerging victorious?"

Well, normally, the two-round structure of the contest all but guarantees that this cannot happen: even if Le Pen led the first round, the left-wing and centrist vote would gravitate to a single candidate in the run-off, pretty much ensuring that Le Pen's opponent would win, irrespective of identity.

You might think, given the way that coronavirus has pitilessly exposed some of the inadequacies of populist leaders, that the above pattern was even more likely than usual to be replicated in 2022.

But these are strange times.

In France, as elsewhere, COVID-19's impact threatens to be as damaging for the health of the economy as of the population.

There are still nearly two years before Presidential polling dates. What if the economic impact of the virus persists, defying the efforts of everyone to get the economy moving again?

All one can really say at this point is that struggling economies and high joblessness tend to enhance the appeal of non-mainstream political candidates – because voters are desperate and more willing to try something new.

If I were Bach, I think I would be hoping especially fervently that the French economy can be swiftly repaired, strengthening the hand of current President Emmanuel Macron and other potential mainstream candidates.

A Paris Games with Le Pen in the Elysée would put the IOC squarely in the firing-line yet again.

Marine Le Pen as French President would prompt difficult questions for the IOC ahead of Paris 2024 ©Getty Images
Marine Le Pen as French President would prompt difficult questions for the IOC ahead of Paris 2024 ©Getty Images

• I have been writing a lot about rowing recently, and colourful memories of Olympic regattas in the far-off 1950s and 1960s continue to ping into my inbox.

John Jenkinson, teenage coxswain of the young Australian coxed four which just missed out on the bronze medal to Finland in the Melbourne 1956 Games is my latest correspondent.

Among many other fascinating details, Jenkinson recalls that having won the right to represent their country, he and his crew-mates lived in a caravan park near the venue in Ballarat for two weeks before they could move into the Olympic Village.

Accommodation in the Village, he writes, was "in Nissen huts".

"Each hut was divided into four cubicles with two beds and small bedside table in each cubicle," he said.

"The Village included a communal ablution block and a communal eating hall.

"Food was very good and catered for all countries' requirements."

"Once in the Village," Jenkinson goes on, "there were a few surprises for us".

"The French team had bottles or carafes of wine on their table each night," he adds.

"The Italian team had beer on their table.

"The Brits dressed for dinner each night in blazer, shirt and tie, and got roundly heckled when they arrived."

He tells me that Lake Wendouree was "subject to vicious weed growth".

"It was necessary to cut the racing course and the training courses out of the weed in the lake," he added.

"A weed-cutting machine was used for the purpose – it was locally designed and made.

John Jenkinson has told tales from Melbourne 1956 ©Getty Images
John Jenkinson has told tales from Melbourne 1956 ©Getty Images

"It was in use seven days a week to keep clear the main course and training areas…

"Some 50,000 cubic yards of weed was cleared from the lake…

"Generally however, the Olympic regatta was considered to be well-run and the course excellent."

Jenkinson also recounts that Ian Allen, the Australian crew's stroke, remembers clearly that one of the Italian rowers played the bagpipes around the various accommodation blocks at the hostel.

The piper's repertoire included Blue Bonnets From Over the Border, which happened to be what the war-time regiment of the brigadier in charge of accommodation at the venue was playing when they marched into Germany.

Jenkinson also tells me that the silver medal dropped into the lake by Soviet oarsman Victor Ivanov was retrieved by a local schoolboy and returned to him.

Of course, the world had problems enough in that era too; it would be absurd to suggest otherwise.

Yet they seem somehow like so much more innocent times.