London's window to the world
Hundreds of thousands of individual decisions are being made now about whether to apply to be an official volunteer for London 2012. But underpinning them is that huge question for the United Kingdom and its capital: how do we want to present ourselves to the world in two years' time?
From my own experience, volunteers really do matter to the atmosphere of the Games. Vancouver was, as Canada always is, populated by the cheery and the willing. The memory from a different trip of an elderly woman whooping it up in a cowboy hat as a Calgary Welcome will never fade.
And the potentially monolithic Beijing experience was humanised by the Chinese volunteers who must have spent weeks at Smiling School - to the extent that after a few days there I really wanted someone to scowl or snap at me as a reminder of home.
Which brings us to London. Point one is that, important though the official volunteers are, it's the city as a whole that's on show. The Vancouver and Beijing teams felt a true part of the experience because the populations of the host cities wanted to make it work too: there was a buzzing enthusiasm that went beyond the uniform t-shirts.
Everyone felt like they were in on the act - and it was, for instance, remarkable that on leaving Beijing Airport you were invited to give an electronic score to the immigration officials for how nicely or not they'd treated you. (I gave them a top score just in case they changed their mind about letting me out.)
For foreign visitors, literally bumping into Londoners in mid-commute isn't a wonderful experience
Point two is that the London we know isn't really like that. I'm an unashamed lover of London and there's nowhere I'd rather live and work, but I wouldn't pretend that a day travelling round would give you a series of 100% "happy face" responses to customer service people or the various branches of officialdom. For foreign visitors, literally bumping into Londoners in mid-commute isn't a wonderful experience; and the pace and noise of the city disguise what is, essentially, a warm heart.
The issue, then, is how much we want London in 2012 to be a different experience to everyday life in 2010. I was interested to hear Boris Johnson say he wanted to harness the Olympics to make London a "less selfish" city if he wins re-election in 2012 - yes the mayoral election campaign is already underway - and if that is to mean something it has to extend well beyond the volunteers into the daily lives of millions of citizens.
Would that be a good outcome? It may be that a world city's culture is inevitably at odds with the kind of community you get elsewhere, and the authentic voice of London is simply different from the "have a nice day" superficialities.
But welcoming smiles from Londoners will go a long way to ensuring that visitors' memories of 2012 are as positive about the city and its people as we want them to be about the sport and events.