This summer I had the pleasure of being in London during the 2012 Olympic period. It wasn’t something I had initially given much thought to – I’m not a sporting enthusiast (or sporty in any sense of the word); I was too busy with work at Oxford most of the time to pay attention to what was happening on the Olympic organisation front; and I wasn’t even expecting to be in London during the Olympics. But as it turned out, I was, for almost the whole two weeks in which they took place. And it was, all of a sudden and unexpectedly, exhilarating!
I can’t decide what I liked best about it: was it the generally happy and enthusiastic vibe throughout London, as people strutted onto Tube trains draped in various flags or wearing their Olympic ‘Games Maker’ uniforms (the London games had about 70,000 of them)? Was it the fact that as I stood drinking outside of bars in little Soho alleyways, little contingents of Americans (still wearing their passes or cards or whatever it was around their neck with the recognisable purple Olympic strap) would run down the streets, asking for directions or wondering which bar to enter? Perhaps it was the fun and joy of live screenings in places like Hyde Park and Potters Field(s?), where people adorned the lawns in great crowds with pints of beer and rolled-up cigarettes regardless of the time of day or day of week, to cheer at (and for) random sports. Or maybe it was the fact that everyone (myself included!) was really, really interested in the games and the events, and that for a while the news decided to highlight something that was happy and exciting and inspirational, as opposed to depressing and saddening (economic troubles; massacres; etc).
There’s also the fact that the Olympics, and the Commonwealth Games to a lesser extent, actually get people interested in things they wouldn’t normally pay attention to – I found myself watching things like boxing, gymnastics, swimming, athletic events (from shot put to pole vaulting), beach volleyball, badminton…. Sports I barely knew anything about, and yet about which I learnt, and which I enjoyed, during this time. I learnt about people who had worked immensely hard to be there, about people who had had to overcome great obstacles to reach the Olympics at all (like Gemma Gibbons, a British judoka, or Gabby Douglas the gymnastics AA individual women’s gold medallist, or Mary Kom, an Indian female boxer who got her first Olympic medal – a bronze – this time), and about the sacrifices they made (training hours and hours a day; no alcohol for 4 years…madness!). It was exciting to see greatness (like a Phelps or a Bolt), and it was exciting to see the underdogs or the unknown win (like Katie Ledecky or Ruta Meilutyte, a Lithuanian 15 year old who won a gold in swimming and shocked everyone – she could barely talk in her post-swim BBC interview, which was incredibly amusing, but also really touching, to watch!). And it was especially amazing to see the kindness and respect with which athletes often treated one another; one of the moments which stood out for me, in particular, was Kirani James’ victory in the Men’s 400m track event: not many people seem to do this, in athletics, but the first thing James did after winning was turn around, and shake hands with every single one of his competitors. He didn’t go straight into the victory run like so many do (hee hee – sorry Bolt!); and I knew I was watching a really nice – indeed, even noble – man, and a great sportsperson.
Celebrity culture is all well and good (sometimes), but as many people have pointed out – the Olympics have been inspirational, particularly for me and particularly this one, for many people in a really different and valuable way. I’m not sure why it was these Olympics more than any other (I watched Beijing 2008 & Athens 2004 with the same avidity); but Michael Johnson’s commentary for the BBC gives a little clue, perhaps – he said that these Olympics were the first to focus on the idea of ‘legacy’, leaving something behind once they were done (besides a big debt and world class stadiums to fall into disuse). The slogan for the Olympics was, among other things, “inspire a generation”, and it sort of showed in everything about these games. And the planners have thought long and hard about what would happen after the Games finished – their Aquatic Centre is architecturally designed to have removable wings, and many of the venues were constructed on a similar temporary basis, with parts to be dismantled etc. So there will be few, if any, ‘white elephants’. Even things like the doping test facilities will be re-used, as a disease research centre (a phenomenal and economic way of re-using something, in my humble opinion!).
It’s nice to admire people for the hard work they’ve put, or their sheer brilliance and skill at certain things. And the atmosphere in London really redounded with this positivity: there was such a cosmopolitan (yes, even moreso than usual, and perhaps more needed than ever in these economically-troubled times) energy and friendly vibrance throughout the city! The UK did such an amazing job organising it; the Tube wasn’t manic (at least, not moreso than usual, as far as I saw!), and there were so many exciting Olympic-inspired arts events everywhere (one of my friends was performing in such a piece at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, and this is still up – people should go see it!). I went to see the Canoe Sprinting at Eton Dorney, which isn’t the easiest place to get to (it seems), but I was so impressed at how quickly, efficiently, smoothly, seamlessly I was taken from Slough to my seat in the stands – within half an hour, without any trouble!
I was really sad when they ended, perhaps in part because I was leaving two days later too (Heathrow was also full of Olympic residues, people and signs both!). But hey — looking forward to Rio 2016! (And missing London, very much, already.)