All my Olympics misgivings were reinforced by the torch relays across the country. Invented for the 1936 Olympics by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis PR man, the present incarnation did its best to live up to its unpleasant cultural roots. A nasty emphasis on security by the Metropolitan Police’s grey-clad compliance-bots resulted in a young lad being dragged off his BMX bike just down the road from me in Haverhill in a ridiculously disproportionate security operation. This lack of sensitivity was repeated during the actual games when Mark Worsfold, a former soldier suffering from Parkinson’s was arrested for “not smiling” during a cycle race.
My direct experience was little better even if it was lovely seeing families enjoying parties in their front gardens as I walked to some friends to watch it together. A rather bemused-looking middle-aged woman waited torch aloft for the oncoming circus. And circus it was, the Coca-Cola bus threw small bottles of their product at us and the Samsung bus dispensed clappers while screaming exhortations through a loudspeaker (they might have been shouting, Consume! Consume! but I couldn’t be sure). The Lloyds Bank bus as is popular with their trade, did nothing but demand our attention. On my return home the families were thankfully still there and in true British style supping beer and sipping tea.
If the narrative of the torch was a grubby disconnect from real people with individual enjoyment and the avaricious desires of corporation at odds with one another, then the pre-Games behaviour of the Olympic organising committee LOCOG was even worse. Their role seemed to be as henchmen for corporations scouring the country for the smallest signs of deviation from semiotic monopoly. Infamous and ridiculous in equal measure a butcher in Weymouth with the temerity to display sausages in the shape of the five rings was subject to their attention as was a café offering a “Flaming Torch Baguette”.
With private company G4S making such a massive Horlicks of security provision the British Army needed to cover the shortfall with 4,500 troops the run-up to the events themselves suggested a re-run of the 1996 Atlanta Games blighted by corporate prominence and logistical incompetence. Then everything changed. Somehow a chippy yet chipper Lancastrian of working-class Irish Catholic stock had been allowed to direct the Opening Ceremony just as he had his grimy classics Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. I believe Danny Boyle began the process of a fortnight of reinventing what it is to be British and reclaiming the Union Flag from the far right.
In the space of 24 hours my Olympics opinion was turned 180 degrees from cynicism to strong attachment. I’ve never been a fan of Games ceremonies consisting as they do of either expressions of totalitarian regiment or state ideas of what represents “entertainment” and would not have watched the opening extravaganza had I not been at work. Boyle gloriously redefined the genre by eschewing the traditional model and focusing instead on a social history of modernism in Britain through the industrial revolution until the present.
People were represented doing what they do; working, playing, sharing relationships and caring for each other. It was a cultural performance only this country of world nations could have managed to pull off either in concept or execution. Most significantly he didn’t forget a Great British tradition – taking the piss out of ourselves. Inserting internationally known icons James Bond and Mr Bean into the show was genius, as was getting the reigning monarch to participate in the joke – even if that appeared the limit of her engagement.
In contrast my engagement was growing by the hour. The next morning I had tickets for the Olympic Park along with a trip up the Orbit, the red steel tower designed by artist Anish Kapoor. Along with partner Jane and a couple of friends we spent four happy hours marvelling at the facilities and enjoying the atmosphere. Particularly impressive were the swathes of landscaping covered not on manicured grass but meadows of wild flowers in bloom. Access was easy, soldiers friendly, volunteers helpful and other visitors chatty – an underestimated virtue in London. Even if the catering facilities were poorly stocked, of doubtful quality yet expensively priced the four of us exited the park enthused.
That excitement grew over the next week as the British team collected medal after medal culminating in Day Eight, nicknamed Super Saturday, which included a haul of six golds including a celebratory evening of track and field success. Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon, Greg Rutherford the Long Jump and Mo Farah the 10,000 metres to prompt the Twitter joke, “A mixed-race woman, ginger man and Islamic refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink!” For those of us who find multiculturalism a thing to be enjoyed not feared it was a triumph. In contrast Tory MP Aidan Burley’s Tweets following the Opening Ceremony seemed to sum up another Britain; the churlish and out-dated attitudes of the Little Englander. Never mind, he was probably worth a medal for his subsequent performance in the 1,500 metres backpedalling.
Work was a joy as I watched, wrote up and live-blogged ordinary people performing extraordinary feats. In contrast to the usual diet of saturation reality shows and soaps on television here was a different narrative. Style had been replaced by substance as the BBC joined the mood, put aside the soaked-to-the-bone misery of the Diamond Jubilee and provided some stunning reporting and punditry. Gabby Logan, Clare Balding and Michael Johnson were interesting, knowledgeable and professional – attitudes we seldom think of in connection with football coverage – and the true to form lazy efforts of Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson shouldn’t detract from the overall stellar level.
Politically the big losers were the Conservative party even if London Mayor Boris Johnson’s star continues to rise. The success of Team GB (a term I loathe by the way) was a reverse of the current fashion for austerity and proved just how useful public spending is in promoting excellence. The lamentable efforts of private corporation G4S to provide a service stood in contrast. In particular Prime Minister David Cameron took a hiding. From an Opening Ceremony that hailed the NHS, an organisation currently being dismembered by his coalition, to a series of public appearances that coincided with GB sporting failure and a magnificently ill-timed announcement the government were to scrap the compulsory two hours a week of PE in schools the Tories took a hit. No wonder the PM’s exasperated and anxious advisors recommended he stay away from events.
Sadly the Olympics feeling appears to be evaporating as quickly as it grew with the Closing Ceremony a return to pre-Games cynicism. The “Now That’s What I Call 90s” extravaganza shared no narrative and offered little promise beyond stultifying Saturday nights in front of the TV being “entertained” by talentless celebrities re-hashing past moments of vague achievement. From Jessica Ennis to Jessie J at the twitch of a remote control. Beyond all reason I hope the metaphorical Olympic flame stays lit in our consciousness beyond the actual tournament. More prosaically I wonder if the last fortnight is doomed to be another Princess Di moment; a huge emotional jolt to our collective psyche at the time but forgotten in a blink.