Well, that was nice, wasn’t it?
Now that the closing ceremony is out of the way and it’s safe to come out (bit of an anti-climax, perhaps?), the thirtieth Olympiad is officially over.
I’m a bit sad about that, actually. I can’t pretend that I’d been looking forward to the London Olympics particularly. I tired of the build-up before it really got going, dreading the fickle patriotism and smugness of it all; I braced myself for the know-it-all bores who live vicariously through the endeavours of those who can actually be bothered to get up off their backsides and push themselves to be the best they can be, with their unfair criticism and general delusions of wisdom; I sneered at those athletes who whored themselves during each and every single commercial break for evil corporations I choose to boycott. I admit, I’m a cynical grump at times (not nearly as grumpy as Morrisey though, I hasten to add, although I do share certain sentiments about royalty and celebrity hijackings) and, like many, I’m not ashamed to admit, I thought London hosting the Olympics could quite possibly turn out to be something of an embarrassment, an awful lot of money down the drain trying to equal, perhaps even better (as if, good luck) the awesome spectacle of Beijing, when that money would obviously have been better spent on hospitals and schools.
It’s not that I don’t like sport; I do and very much. Sports that I’ve at one time played I can appreciate and enjoy most of all. Those that even ridiculously large sums of money could not tempt me to try (diving, anyone?) I can watch out of curiosity and genuine admiration and some disbelief – for a little while, anyway. Pretty much all the other events fall somewhere in between; I made the effort to watch as many as I could and found each of them entertaining in their own little way.
I didn’t approve of live animals being used in the opening ceremony; didn’t care about (or watch) the events Britain tends to fare best at (involving boats and horses usually) because, whether those who enjoy them most care to admit or not, participation in them is almost exclusively reserved for the wealthy, and that sticks in the craw. I knew that ‘England’ would keep slipping out of the mouths of commentators, pundits and even athletes instead of ‘Great Britain’, which is already controversial enough (in that it ignores Northern Ireland – it should, of course, be ‘Team GBNI’). I had no doubt that I would be embarrassed for the duration of the games to see the evening news lead every night with what should be an irrelevance when hundreds had died that day, the result of wars and famine and natural disaster. And perhaps worst of all, even worse than Wenlock and Mandeville, I’d keep seeing that horrible jagged logo everywhere I looked.
At the start, even a few days in, I’d have nodded like a Tory backbench buffoon at comments such as this one, from the Independent‘s Simon Kelner: ‘I find the fever pitch of jingoism, reflected in the breathless BBC coverage, a complete turn-off. In fact, it makes me the opposite of proud.’ I thought I’d be satisfied with amusing Lego recreations of the main talking points and would be able to politely follow conversations at post office queues should I ever need to pretend that I didn’t find it all so terribly dull, not wishing to be mistaken for a complete miserabilist.
You get the idea. Give me a nice World Cup any day, preferably one England didn’t qualify for, no offence intended, because then, and you have to admit, the ‘British’ media doesn’t go crazy with unrealistic expectation and the focus is squarely on the competition and one’s enjoyment of it rather than daily metatarsal updates and feigned surprise at the drunken antics of loutish fans coupled with the underachievement of over-paid stars who promise so much. Again.
Oh alright, yes; I even thought Mitt Romney might just have had a point. Happy now?
Now that it’s over, of course, we’ll have a good week or two of endless introspection (here’s Jon Snow), squeeze every remaining drop out of what has been, I think, a resounding success, and we’ll mourn its passing as we are forced to focus once more on all the depressing things it papered over. Ignorance truly is bliss.
We’ll eventually be (well, I am already) repulsed by rosy-cheeked politicians clinging on to the Olympic bandwagon for dear life, milking it as they did the Jubilee, not wanting to let go of the good publicity that hid all the other stuff they’re making a right pig’s ear of. There will come the predictable round of talk shows and newspaper exclusives, offering a dozen variations on ‘It was amazing!’ leading to yet more lucrative advertising opportunities for products that make many of us uncomfortable. We can expect wild overuse of the word ‘legacy’ and fresh calls for Sebastian Coe to be given some grand title (like ‘Lord’ isn’t already grand enough). We’ll soon be sick of the sight of our new heroes, you’ll see, and we’ll curse them when they are still claiming inches on the front pages where gloom and horror should rightfully be.
But it was damn good while it lasted, wasn’t it?
There were so many inspirational competitors, from the female athletes representing Islamic Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei for the first time, to amputee sprinter and ‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, whose tweets have oozed positive energy. As well as London being the first Olympics in which every national team included at least one female athlete, we had women’s boxing for the very first time, and the broad smile of gold medallist Nicola Adams compels even the most po-faced to smile back, I should think. There were almost as many females participating than males; the USA actually sent more women than men to London (269 compared with 261).
You can make much out of the contrasting emotions of Chinese world champion diver Qiu Bo (silver, devastated) and Britain’s Tom Daley (bronze, ecstatic) following the 10m platform diving final, where the courage of German Martin Wolfram, diving with a shoulder injury and still finishing eighth out of 12, also sticks in the mind. How I applauded Canadian footballer Desiree Scott, who withstood a bone-crunching tackle in what I thought was by far the best football match of the tournament – the women’s football semi-final against the USA. (Didier Drogba or Christiano Ronaldo would still be rolling around on the floor, clutching numerous body parts in turn, trying not to cry, you know it.) No stretcher for her and, to everybody’s amazement, she was back on the pitch for penalties that, sadly, never came. I thought she’d broken her leg. The BMX and hockey provided wonderful carnage. Talk about thrills, spills, highs, lows and all that stuff. It had something for everyone.
Such unrestrained emotion. There was South Korean fencer Shin A-lam, who wept for an hour after losing her semi-final and was offered a special award in consolation by fencing’s world governing body, probably just to shut her up, I should think. The best tears, though, were those of Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic, competing in his fourth Olympics. He broke down spectacularly during his gold medal ceremony after winning the men’s 400m hurdles final.
It all made for fascinating viewing.
Viewers’ attitudes really did change. A week ago, if offered a magic button that could switch off the Olympics – something I had prayed for more than once – an amazing 87 per cent of those polled would not have pressed it. Wow. They only needed one finger to make it all go away and they chose not to exert themselves.
The commercial sponsorship and free-loading celebrities did infuriate, it has to be said, but they always do. The over-paid and pampered stars of football and basketball muscling in and taking some of the shine away from those who don’t enjoy such adoration caused some resentment, for great is the contrast between the wealthy footballer and the athlete who generally is not in receipt of a bumper contract supplemented by sweet sponsorship deals (certain high profiles excepted) and is therefore, we all reasonably assume, driven by something far more respectable than financial reward and is thus a more worthy role model for an obese and lazy generation or two for whom competitive sport exists only through the dancing thumbs on a Playstation or Xbox controller. (Many have had their school playing fields sold off, to be fair, and local parks claimed by junkies and drunks if not property developers. Let’s see the schmoozing politicians do something about that.)
It’s been quite amusing to observe the way it’s suddenly dawned on the public that well-paid sportsmen are often rotten wasters who don’t appreciate how lucky they are. Unlike the modern footballer, these Olympians run around your park. You can see them training on the beach or on the river when you walk your dog or take your children to school. Not for them a world of high cast iron gates and intercoms. Not yet, anyway.
So allow me, if you will, to ignore the obvious characters that have demanded the boldest headlines for more than two weeks (Michael Phelps, Chris Hoy, Ben Ainslie, Usain Bolt), because there have been some heart-warming stories concerning less celebrated individuals if you’ve cared to sentimentalise. These are the ones you will to succeed most of all. Take judo bronze medallist Karina Bryant, who had long struggled to make her training sessions in a battered old car. Consider the family sacrifice of Jade Jones, who won a gold in Taekwondo. What reward for her grandfather who regularly accompanied her on sixty-mile round trips.
That close-knit communities which rallied together to raise money so that one person, rich in talent but not necessarily with access to the kind of bank balance that make dream-chasing easier, might achieve his or her ambition of competing in the Olympics, can now see post boxes in their towns and villages painted gold and take pride from one of their own triumphing in the face of adversity, not just by beating the world’s finest in their respective fields but by first overcoming social inequality, warms my cold heart. They were the real stars in Team GB for me.
See? I’m even using the hideous ‘Team GB’ when I vowed just weeks earlier never to resort to such lazy over familiarity.
I’ll disagree with Simon Kelner on one thing: I thought the BBC coverage was pretty good in all, save for the grotesque cartoon characters in the opening credits. It’s a sad sign of the times that we all now expect every tear of joy and agony to be captured in high definition and replayed in slow motion, shown from several angles with a rabble of people who have rented their mouths to the highest bidder and offer their tedious theorising in exchange. I’m always going to wince at the sight of a microphone being thrust with impatience into someone’s face and accompanied by a blunt question prompting pointless stating of the obvious. It’s not unique to the Beeb. We have also come to expect those involved to tweet with regularity and sometimes get carried away.
Yes, the ticketing ballot left many disappointed, with the army drafted in to fill empty seats at times when ungrateful corporate sponsors and VIPs couldn’t be arsed to attend (even though they had dedicated traffic lanes so they could zip through London with minimal inconvenience, for goodness sake). Celebrities, so incredibly fortunate in the ticket lottery, hogged them at other times, not least the Royals still riding the wave of goodwill as they have done since the Royal wedding, in fact. It is true that the medals seemed bigger than they needed to be, I also thought the petite posies so ridiculous at first glance. What’s so ethical about giving somebody cut flowers? I love the wild flowers planted around the Olympic Stadium for the bees and the butterflies, but nearly 5,000 ‘victory bouquets’ were handed out. That’s a lot of flowers chopped down for often burly men to clutch awkwardly.
I’m just being finicky, I know.
The security looked to be a shambles, but I didn’t notice any terrorist atrocity, did you? To stage the event cost a pretty penny, yet how could it not? About six billion pounds of it (£6.2bn) came from government i.e. taxes and two billion (£2.1bn) from Lottery funding i.e. people buying lottery tickets (do please take my earlier point about playing fields). But that was still a quarter of what China spent on Beijing (even though they got an underground and airport out of that, too). See what I’m trying to do here?
Here’s the biggie: It’s always pleasing when the Union Jack is reclaimed from fascists and the gormless, chinless Last Night of the Proms crowd, even if many Britons, and I count myself as one of them, see nothing of relevance in a flag that fails to represent my country (Wales) and associate it, in truth, with imperialism and oppression. I wouldn’t shroud myself in its colours any more than I would sing a dull monotone ode about a God or a Queen, thank you very much, as I have reservations about the existence of one and the validity of the other, even if she now has street cred for appearing alongside James Bond, and I don’t care who that offends. But, do you know, suddenly I don’t resent the Union flag so much. I wonder how Scottish nationalists are feeling about it.
Here’s a poem.
Perhaps the best thing of all was that Mo Farah’s double gold was a wonderful, joyous, well-aimed slap across the flustered cheeks of every bigot in the land who had neighed and stomped about the opening ceremony’s multicultural imbalance. The Somalian refugee’s enthusiasm has been contagious and the Sports Personality of the Year award is going to be very hard to call. My money’s on Mo.
Another thing, it’s been so refreshing to see young sportswomen on both front and back pages instead of plastic ‘celebrities’ (quite literally plastic, many of them); all fake tan and hair extensions, vacuous, rather pointless, famous only for sharing every moment of their empty lives on reality TV and admired by the hopeless for being able to walk in a reasonably straight line after a night on the lash in ridiculously high heels without vomiting over their inflated breasts. I haven’t missed them. Do we have to have them back? Our dedicated Olympians are much more healthy role models in every sense of the word. (Not sick of them yet.)
We can be proud, too, of the volunteers (7,500 people spent three months rehearsing for Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony) and proud that we’ve shown yet again our capacity to laugh at ourselves. There were many moments during both ceremonies that showed how utterly barmy Britons are, and normally I tire of that tired cliché. But I laughed where I was supposed to.
Were we swept along on a wave of surprise at how well we did, as hosts as well as in competition, relieved that it didn’t all go horribly wrong? Fickle as it may be, we indulged in a little escapism, we gave our attention to sports we wouldn’t usually stay up to watch in the early hours of the morning because, without the promise of an over-sized medal at the end of it, most of us just don’t care all that much. I wonder if that will change now.
All I know is that no World Cup has been as satisfying as these Summer Games, so up yours, Mitt Romney.
To my fellow miserabilists, fear not; things will feel more depressingly normal when the front pages scream of gloom and scandal as they did before all this. Hang in there.
Until then, I’d love to know what you liked, what you didn’t, what you’ll remember most and how you thought Britain did. (This is how some Americans rated London. Note the amusing final section on the Royal family, which is so very, very true.) And, if we’re still riding on the success by Thursday, as I suspect we will be, the chatroom will be open from 3pm (UK) should you wish to storm in with your flags a-waving. Just please don’t mix up those of North and South Korea.