Prima facie, spectacular public events and large-scale capital projects are an ideal vehicle for ‘high politics’ and the predilection of policy-making elites for grand, iconic and schematic visions that offer high-profile policy successes and historic legacies. Yet the prospective political rewards from such mega-events and projects must be offset against high levels of risk and complexity. Further, such schemes tend to be at odds with the prevailing doctrines and practices of the modern state: in particular its deference to market-based mechanisms and its liking for instruments of calculation and control. Indeed, mega-projects and events often prove uneconomic despite the predictions of forecasters. This review essay considers how the bidding and planning process for the London 2012 Olympic Games demonstrates this tension between high politics, risk and the preferred methods of governing the modern state.