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.
Along with the rest of the staff on The Sun’s editorial floor I was bent over a TV screen waiting for IOC President Jacques Rogge to announce who would be holding the 2012 Olympics. It was Wednesday the sixth of July, 2005 – and as I recall, overcast but warm. “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing”, he said. “That the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of … LONDON!”
The British delegates in Singapore leapt up and down in jubilation. Kelly Holmes beat her fists on the table in celebration. At Wapping the tension broke just the same. Well, almost.
Due to the vagaries of the networking system at News International the TVs at the far end of the floor were wired to a receiver a second or two ahead of our technologically challenged loop that covered Online and Features. We heard the cheers from the Sport and News desks before Rogge had finished the word, “city”. No matter it meant a mountain of work for me for the rest of the afternoon (albeit I’d already prepared for much of it) this was London in 2005 and everything was perfect.
My career at The Sun was really beginning to take off as I was given increasing responsibility by my editor. Love was blossoming and I had not long returned from a great holiday on the beautiful island of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro with Jane. Tony Blair was in power and despite my instinctive distrust of the man the housing market was roaring. We all had cash in our pockets and even though his chancellor had declared an end to boom and bust it seemed like boom all the way.
Until, of course everything really did go boom.
And no, I wouldn’t be so callous as to be referring to the events of the very next morning when a tube train I’d been travelling on an hour or so earlier was blasted in two by a religious fanatic from a Leeds chip shop. (Eight people died including the bomber).
Four years later we lived in a post-credit crunch world. I was made redundant and used an amount of my pay-off on psychotherapy to try and understand why. Of course the truth, as Oscar Wilde didn’t say, was simple – as much as I had emotionally engaged with working for a newspaper I loathed they treated me as all corporations do, with complete disregard.
Blair had long since let me down, News International let me down – and the closer we came to the Olympics the more my initial optimism seemed unfounded. And not just because as a West Ham supporter the legacy of the stadium was wrapped in the labyrinthine complexities of finance, law and Tottenham Hotspur.
At least there was still Jane, now paying back my faith in her by proving to me to me just how kindness can be a strength, a notion I’d fought against all my life. Her recognition of the Olympics is important living as she does in east London just three or so miles and three stops on the Central Line from Stratford.
The borough of Newham where the stadium is being built is the third poorest in the country with children growing with a 27 per cent rate of “severe poverty”. Yet the average price of a house in the borough is over £220,000. Jane lives in the relatively affluent Redbridge and works for a legal costs consultants yet cannot afford to buy a ticket to watch the Olympics. Nor can many of the locals despite them all paying for the event via their increased council tax.
The promised “legacy” from the Olympic Village, earmarked to be used as social housing seems to shrink by the day. Just how many of those homes, now owned by the Qatari Royal family do we think will actually serve the community and not scores of incoming businessmen eager to work closer to the financial centre of London?
At least there’s the “regeneration” provided by Westfield – a huge shopping complex to the east of the stadium. Jane and I visited a couple of Sundays ago and I must say we were as delighted as ever by the great food on offer at Busaba Eathai. But something strange was afoot, we left the restaurant to have a browse of the shops – admittedly never my favourite leisure activity – but could barely walk around the concourses for the sheer volume of shoppers.
Only they weren’t shoppers, they were spectators – if we wanted to avoid the crowds it was easy – just walk into a shop, they were invariably close to empty as nobody had any spending cash. So there it is, the Olympics, an event the people closest to it cannot partake in, live in or shop in despite all the lofty claims of “legacy”. All we can do is watch from afar via our TV screens as the tournament plays out to a grateful world.
Actually, I don’t think I’ll bother…