WHETHER you are interested in the Olympics or not, a small round of applause is probably due to the people giving up their time to make the Games happen.

There is something very British, if very quaint, about their commitment to public service. Never in the field of sporting endeavour have so few corporate creeps owed so much to so many ordinary, public-spirited individuals.

It happens to be true. Forget all that stuff about McDonald's, Coca- Cola and the other multi-nationals that are crucial, supposedly, to London 2012. Locog, the organising committee, makes it plain. Some 200,000 people have been working on the Games. Half of those are in "contractor roles" and 6000 are paid staff. Of the rest, some 70,000 are working for the love of it.

This is otherwise known as "free".

What would G4S not give for such a workforce? Come to that, what would G4S not give for a workforce whose numbers came close to matching the promises made in a £284 million contract? Somehow, the global security firm can't get the staff. Locog has been able to take its pick of 70,000 from a quarter of a million applicants. To put it no higher, the contrast is striking.

The volunteers are not along for the ride. They will be expected to work a minimum of 10 shifts in the course of the games, often starting at 6am. They will be expected to get themselves to and from the venues, no matter where they live. They will be working with the public, with the media, as drivers, as performers in the opening ceremony, as equipment handlers, as guides, ticket inspectors, translators, scoreboard operators: you name it.

For all of this they will get travel and meal vouchers and be allowed to keep their purple-and-red shirts. Some of them will be paying from their own pockets to sleep on camp sites for the duration of the Games. You begin to wonder what these people wouldn't do for the Olympic ideal.

Then you begin to wonder about a couple of other things. For one: shouldn't G4S think about hiring the officials who put together this volunteer army? The company in whose care the Government entrusts a vast range of public services can't find 10,000 security guards. Meanwhile, 70,000 of the people who pay for those same services are falling over themselves to work for free. But then, you can't outsource idealism.

Before the debacle, G4S advertised itself as a company intent on inspiring prospective staff. You too, it said, could "take your place in history" as a "security officer" at the games. Shifts would "usually" be of 12 hours at £8.50 an hour – with no promise of a medal, sadly – but even as a temporary remedy this had to be better, as G4S likes to imply, than the dole. Many of the unemployed agreed. Then they discovered the firm didn't want them around picking up wages until the last moment. Disenchantment followed.

Those 70,000 volunteers pose no such problems. Many are taking holidays or leaves of absence simply so that London can have games to make London proud. That they are also giving sponsors a warm glow seems not to trouble these ordinary folk. They are clamouring to be exploited. They are paying for the privilege.

It's not for me to spoil anyone's enjoyment. I'm not wild about most of the Olympic sports but that is, no doubt, my problem. I could have found better uses for the best part of £10 billion. I could have done without the whiff of bread and circuses. I could certainly have lived a while longer without the sight of Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, rehabilitating himself all over our TV screens.

But I have no problems with the Olympic ideal. It is, or once was, one of the handier ideals for humanity and for sport. It will be embodied soon enough by those 70,000 volunteers and by a great many athletes. But London is providing textbook proof that the ideal is otherwise debased, and debased utterly. The Olympics have been made tawdry. By no accident, an army of volunteers simply distracts attention from the fact. What's worse, it doesn't have to be this way.

None of the jokes is funny. Here's one: as a media type, I can talk about "Team GB" to my heart's content. I can write "London 2012", "Olympian", "Get Set", "Faster, Higher, Stronger", "Supporting the London Games", or just "Games". I can combine naughty words from two lists, say "2012" and "summer". Should you attempt any of that with a hand-written advert in your chip shop window, Locog would have the law on you. Thanks to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006, the committee has declared "summer" a "Listed Expression".

'Sponsors" is also on the list, strangely enough. You've probably heard a few surreal tales by now. The one about police officers helping out after the G4S debacle being told to empty their crisps into unmarked bags in the name of "brand protection" happens to be true. The tale of 300 Locog "enforcement officers" patrolling Britain with the power to invade private property and issue fines of up to £20,000 against any non-sponsoring business seeking to "associate" itself with the games is absolutely, if bizarrely, true.

Britain has been surrendered to the predators of the International Olympic Committee (IoC). The 70,000 volunteers, their goodwill abused, are simply providing the acceptable face of (yet another) corporate outrage. That's before anyone begins to answer a simple but pertinent question. What on earth do McDonald's, Coke and the makers of Cadbury's chocolate have to do with the promotion of health and fitness? Perhaps we should count that a rhetorical question.

Graciously, McDonald's Coca-Cola, Visa and General Electric have "waived" the tax relief they were entitled to claim from their Games profits. Whether they would have done so if tax campaigners had not raised an outcry is for them to say. We need only observe that they left it until last week to make the gesture. Most people would have a different inquiry: what do you mean, tax relief? Yet again, it's all true. In exchange for an estimated $100m each, the IoC's "worldwide sponsors" were guaranteed tax breaks on the profits they make on the back of the Games. This, amid all the rest of the pernicious nonsense, was accepted enthusiastically by the last Labour government.

The Olympics are degraded and degrading. The fact won't necessarily spoil anyone's fun as the competitors begin to perform astonishing feats. The chances are, in fact, that it will all be forgotten as humanity begins to excel itself. But with the official London price tag at £9.3bn, and unofficial estimates topping £13bn, a suggestion springs to mind. If 70,000 volunteers can show so much madcap enthusiasm and seek nothing in return, why not kick out the sponsors? Is it truly impossible to stage an Olympics for £8.3bn and restore idealism in sport? Or is the commodity now too valuable for governments, corporations and the IoC? If so, there are many more than 70,000 dupes among us.