Two weeks on from the closing ceremony and a few days before the opening of the Paralympics in London, I’ve stirred myself to sum up how I felt about the games. We left for a holiday in Spain that last Sunday, so the blogging opportunities were a bit more limited. But no harm in spendng a little time reflecting, because we were all getting a bit euphoric!
I’m going to write something about the music too, so this post concentrates on the sport and the general vibe.
And that vibe, that was what was so extraordinary. Helped by GB’s medal haul, no doubt, but so much more than that. A real pride in what we, as a nation had achieved at these Olympics: the magnificent architecture, the brilliant efficiency of it all (give or take the odd signal failure on the tube), the helpfulness and smiles of all those purple-shirted volunteers all over London, the amazing and imaginative venues outside the Olympic Park, the sheer goodwill between people of all nations, creeds and colours, the joie de vivre.
The build up in the media was typically probing for incompetence and failure. And a chance to knock the politicians – Tony Blair who helped win the games for London, Cameron now, Boris. Of course there would be a few glitches and the big story was G4S failing to provide enough people for security. But the army stepped in and made things better anyway. Good to have them around. People were still harping on about the cost (which was high) , the “Zil lanes” for the bigwigs (fair enough, I didn’t much like them in principle), doubting the transport system would cope, knocking Britain as so many like to do. I guess it’s in the national psyche to carp and doubt, but deep down there is a real pride and belief – it just takes a trigger to release it.
Just takes a trigger… or two. The procession of the Olympic Torch through the UK which clearly did energise the nation (though I must admit I largely missed it) and then that opening ceremony. I’ve written a bit about it already in Sportsthoughts 33, but I still chuckle at the audacity and quirkiness of it all, as well as the ambition and scale… and the brilliant music. I don’t know what the rest of the world made of it, but I think here in the UK, it gave us all a real buzz, a real launchpad for the Games. A reminder (if we really needed it) of the rich history we have to draw upon, the humour and irony that infuses pretty much everything we do, and that music. When it comes to the crunch, we have the Beatles – no-one else can say that. It was so right to have Paul McCartney singing “Hey Jude” at the end, even if his voice was a little ropey.
Of course there was some controversy. An MP complained on Twitter about “leftie multiculturalism” – too much emphasis on Britain’s varied cultures. My God, the suggestion that black and white people might live together! Celebrating the National Health Service! That chap Dizzie whatisname going on about being bonkers! Bring back the Queen and the Rolling Stones! (whose entire musical references were from black America). Oh well, in a multicultural world we must try to understand all views. Some will be based on fear and loathing of anything but their own cultural references. We’ve got to deal with that, see how some of those fears can be assuaged.
I think the Olympics, as they progressed, might have helped.
Things start a little slowly, for GB, on the medal front. I really enjoyed going down to Richmond Bridge, to see the men’s road race flash by (see my Sportsthoughts 34). That buzz, the anticipation, the smiles, told you that this Olympics was going to be good. As it happened, the men’s team got their strategy wrong and never got the chance to launch Mark Cavendish to Gold. Material for the naysayers. The swimmers weren’t doing quite as well either. After a couple of days the articles were starting about the lack of Golds. Oh, come on!
But then we got one, then two (Bradley Wiggins in the cycling time trial and Helen Glover and Heather Stanning in the women’s pairs rowing) and it was all OK. And in fact it started going so well for team GB, that no-one knew where to go next. The positivity, both about the GB performance and the vibe at all the venues was such that the people began to lead the media. Grumbling and criticising was becoming distinctly unfashionable. “Super Saturday” sealed it. When, that evening, GB won three Golds in the athletics arena – Greg Rutherford in the long jump, Jessica Ennis in the Heptathlon, Mo Farrar in the 10,000m – the buzz, the emotion, the love, was just extraordinary. The British butterfly – a real beauty with a big smile – truly emerged from its chrysalis and flew with red, white and blue pride. It was one of the moments when all cynicism was banished and there was unity in the joy of it all. Who could not be moved by Jess’s tears?
For a while, Britain – or the UK to be accurate – battered by recession, cuts, division, cynicism, self-doubt – rediscovered the love. For itself…
That mood flowed on through the second week, as did the medals. 65 in total by the end, with 29 Golds. That put us third in the medals table behind the USA and China (though I expect the Russians would emphasise total medals, which puts them third). A massive improvement on Beijing, which in itself was pretty good. commentators harked back to the dark days of Atlanta, 1996, when Britain won one Gold.
What’s the difference? Well, the brute answer is money. Britain started investing in its athletes. That meant the strategies could be developed and implemented, the talent identified, our strengths identified and nutured. Rowing and cycling for example. The National Lottery began in 1997 and it became a major source of funding. For Beijing £235m was put into team GB (I think that is for the four years in advance) and this rose to something between £260-3o0m for London, depending on whose figures you believe. Sydney 2000 was £60m and presumably before that it was even lower, as Sydney was the first Lottery-boosted sum.
So now will the funding continue? The objective of doing well at our home games was bound to focus everyone, even the Treasury. Can that continue, in an era of cuts and downsizing? David Cameron says it will, for Brazil. Hope he’s right.
And what of “The Legacy”. A part of East London, Stratford, has been hugely redeveloped. There’s a massive Westfield shopping centre next door. There should be continued prosperity brought to the area. But what of the legacy for sport? Is this a step jump, a new era? Will the nation get its kit on and participate? Will children have the chance to make the best of their ability, regardless of background, outside the usual route of football? Will they have anywhere to play and learn those skills? Since the Olympics, the papers are looking for examples of school playing fields being sold off, and they aren’t hard to find. The education secretary, Michael Gove, is getting a bit of a kicking. But will it last? Will we lose interest in the detail, the local investment which is so essential? Without the focus of a Home Olympics? You have to fear the worst, especially when public funds are so tight. When the Government cuts funding, local authorities usually take the brunt. Less national impact in the media. The problems are manifested in local decisions, forced on cash-strapped local government. At the same time, those authorities are told to prioritise things like social care (which is fair enough). It makes funding of sport, which is not, in the short term, a life or death matter, or a vote winner, very vulnerable. Thinking long term about something like sport, when money is tight and an election is imminent, will always be hard for any politician.
So the National Lottery remains key. If, of course, you believe that sport is important. I do, of course. It’s good, physically for people, it can build self-esteem and teamwork, and it entertains us and brings us together. These things are hard to put a monetary value on, but I do think they are things to be cherished, and supported. As a tax payer, I’ll always be happy to see more of my contribution going into sport.
OK, enough of the diatribe. Here are my twelve favourite sporting moments from the Olympics, in no particular order. Was going to be ten, but I couldn’t leave any of these out, never mind the others that could have been in there!
* Bradley Wiggins winning the time trial and sitting on his throne in Hampton Court Palace.
* Lizzie Armistead’s brilliant silver in the women’s cycling road race, showing the men where they went wrong the day before.
* The US swimmers sweeping all before them and Michael Phelps breaking all medal records.
* The crazily festive atmosphere at the beach volleyball in Horse Guards Parade, with the fantastic nightime backdrop of Big Ben and the London Eye. Makes yer proud to be a Londoner!
* Seeing the power and skill of basketball close up, as Spain took on Russia.
* Greg Rutherford’s long jump Gold, overshadowed on Super Saturday by Jess and Mo, but just as impressive.
* Of course, the brilliance, and high spirits of Usain Bolt (and his silver medalling compatriot, Yohan Blake).
* Laura Trott’s brilliant achievements in the velodrome – such power. And then the almost bemused, breezy voice as she reflected on what she had done. Just so natural.
* Chris Hoy powering through to take the Kieren, after almost losing it to the German cyclist, Maxmillian Levy. And those silly bikes that take them through the first few laps.
* The sheer exuberance of the US women’s 4X100 sprinters as they smashed that old East German record.
* The mighty Mo Farrar taking the 5000m and 10,000m titles. Surely the urging of the crowd helped sweep him to victory. Did someone really ask him whether he’d rather run for Somalia? Extraordinary.
And who doesn’t love this picture when he and Usain swap celebrations?
* And of course, Jessica Ennis winning the Heptathlon. And giving her all to win the 800m when she didn’t need to. And the tears as she described in the BBC interview what it meant to her. And those tears as they played the national Anthem for her Gold. The most moving moments of the Olympics for me. Just sentimental, I guess. But proud to be British, too..
And last thing, congratulations to the BBC for an absolutely fantastic presentation of the games. Everything – the presenters, the pundits, the commentary, the filming, the choice of channels (you could watch just about everything), the superb on-line offer. Innovative, creative, professional, humorous: you name it, they got it spot on. (Except when Chris Boardman couldn’t tell the time between the breakaway group and the peleton on the cycling road race, but hey, no-one’s perfect).
With luck, that will put paid to any more of those self-interested attacks on the BBC and the way it is funded. It is totally a national treasure. Get your hands off it!