The Torch Relay - The Olympic Ideal in Flames

16/07/2012 17:16 BST | Updated 15/09/2012 10:12 BST

"Mum! It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!" Trills my son as he tries to raise my enthusiasm for the local leg of the torch relay for which he is committed to play rousing patriotic tunes with his school Jazz band.

Theo is 12. His world is straightforward. Britain is great. 2012 is a special year in spite of the austere times. It's a Jubilee year and an Olympic year. There is nothing complicated about it. When he sees Gary Barlow explain Commonwealth tambourine bashing to Her Majesty, he sees a talented song writer and an enduring monarch, not one tax avoider talking to a former tax avoider.

When he hears David Cameron declare that we are "all in it together" he truly believes that Nancy and Arthur Cameron have had their pocket money slashed just as he has. His head is full of the stories of classical civilisation on which he genuinely believes the Olympic ideal is based. He really, really wants to see the Olympic torch. The flame has come from Olympia, home of the gods and the seat of civilisation, not from a country broken by capitalism and shunned by its neighbours. He is 12. The world is benign and full of romance.

When I was 12, Prince Charles married Diana. I believed they were in love, "whatever in love means". It turned out it means imagining yourself to be the tampon of your married lover, but I wasn't ready for the truth then either.

So I brace myself. I let go of the prospect of a gym class and Woman's Hour and I try to muster the appropriate energy for something I am instinctively suspicious of. I hate my reaction. Must my heart be so black, I think, that I can respond with nothing but cynicism? Perhaps once I'm there, I'll be lifted by the occasion, moved by the spectacle and pleasantly surprised by the community spirit.

We arrive in good time; it is 8.30am and the torch itself is not due to arrive at the school until 10.26 whereafter it will "sweep" down the drive before turning right into the village. There are a handful of people milling about the 62 acre site. The headmaster's wife is anxious that nobody will turn up.

I spot a couple of colleagues from our local BBC radio station which has been covering every step of the journey, following the stories of the torch bearers.

"Need some kids to interview alongside the headmaster," they say. I offer Theo and a couple of his pals.

The head says his bit about how proud he is to have the torch at the school. The reporter turns to Theo. "You broke up for the summer holidays on Friday," she says, "shouldn't you be kicking a football around now?"

"I'm just so proud to be here to celebrate the Olympic torch and all it symbolises," says my earnest child. My heart breaks a little bit under my waterproof. The head swells with pride such that I think his bicycle clips will fly off. I feel my cynicism dealt a hefty right hook.

The band plays and I take my place along the drive where people are indeed arriving en masse. Parties of children from other local schools wave flags they have coloured in. The voice of the headmaster booms out over the tannoy, explaining that an activation convoy will arrive ahead of the torch convoy itself. I have no idea what an "activation convoy" might be, but it sounds impressive.

Then, the throaty revs of motorbikes. Big, shiny BMW motorbikes ridden by leatherclad, hi-vis policemen. The air throbs with horsepower and I feel unexpectedly aroused. It is not an unfamiliar feeling; it happened when the air ambulance landed close by me. Inappropriate arousal is a cross I bear.

The policemen high five the kids as they zip past. "Enjoy that," I tell my sons, "it's the only time you'll slap a copper without ending up on a charge."

And then arrives a convoy of coaches. One badged with Samsung logos, bearing pretty young girls waving and texting on Samsung phones. Next, a coach in the livery of Lloyds TSB bearing pretty young girls waving. No sign of any thanks for the bail out. Finally, a huge red float sponsored by Coca Cola, featuring a team of pretty girls waving and holding Coke bottles. They head up the drive where the coaches turn around and let all the pretty girls out for a loo break.

More police. More throbbing. Another convoy arrives. This time it's a bus load of bewildered looking people in white pyjama-style outfits that might otherwise indicate that they were on day release. They are the torch bearers. Our torch bearer smiles wanly.

Eventually, after the sponsors force their branding on us again, the torch bearer makes her way along the drive. Disappointingly, she doesn't run. We have no idea who she is; she isn't local. The air is filled with the smell of fuel and flame. She looks nervous; I would be too, clothed in that many man made fibres.

"It's the torch!" gasps Theo. I want to tell him that I have a lighter, picked up from a gutter in Athens in 2005 which is more authentic and won't end up on e-bay, but I keep quiet.

And then it is over. I didn't feel patriotic or tearful or uplifted. I just felt hoodwinked. I love the Olympics, love the endeavour, the challenge to push the limits of human capability. I love the competition, the striving, the winning and the losing; the podium moments, the team hugs and the heartbreak interviews. But that is not what the torch relay or indeed, these Games themselves are about. They are about consumption.

We will not be watching the Olympics this summer, we will be consuming them. Not an event will go by without our collective subconscious being assaulted by global corporations. We are not spectators, we are target audience, sucked in and captive and so important to all involved that they created a torch relay route to take in 1000 towns and 95% of the population. The marketing has been shrewdly planned; the ticketing overtly exclusive.

Maybe it was ever thus. Perhaps the first Olympics were sponsored by a local kebab seller with an eye to expansion or a soothsayer seeking wider network coverage. But I suspect not.

Like everything else, we've supersized the Games. We've allowed them to be hijacked by high-fat, high-sugar product racketeers whose only interest is in supersizing profits at our expense.