Monday 13 August 2012

We were all so wrong

Nothing I say will be new or unique here.

But I wanted to admit that like so many other people, I was wrong.

I have a clear memory of that roller-coaster 24 hours on the 6th and 7th July 2005. I had a few weeks to waste, with a summer job lined up but nothing to do in the meantime. This was also a time when I was a casual party member of the Liberal Democrats - basically I shelled out ten quid and they spent about half that on stamps for letters asking me for more money. During my period of idleness I was bombarded with emails requesting help at a by-election in Cheadle, where Mark Hunter was up in a furious battle with the Tory candidate. With nothing better to do, I took a leap of faith and plunged into political campaigning for the first - and last, as it transpired - time. I had a fantastic few weeks, met loads of incredible people, tramped the streets with luminaries like (Lord) Tom McNally, heard loads of fascinating stories and ended up getting quite close to some very senior people in the party. It was a hoot.

One day when shoving a leaflet through a letterbox, a dog took exception and decided to have a good go at my knuckles, leaving me with a graze and plenty of paranoia about tetanus. So it came to pass that on the afternoon of 6 July, I watched the announcement in the waiting room of a Staffordshire A&E department. I remember the elation, the screams...and the call, in the nick of time, for Mr O'Neill to see the doctor please. (He took one look at my minor graze and laughed in my face).

I remember the following day too - it was a special one for us, for the then leader, Charles Kennedy, was to come and give a speech to rouse the troops. Sure enough, CK turned up first thing in the morning, but there were worried whispers and dark rumours spreading around the office of something terrible happening in London. CK was ushered into the kitchen with a portable radio - he needed to be able to hear the Prime Minister's speech on the bombings, so he could give his reaction.

Fast forward seven years and my excitement grew slowly and steadily. The Olympics have always represented something special to me - the pinnacle of sport, something pure and true, competing for the sake of competition, unsullied by anything else. But for the last few months, I was infected with a cancerous cynicism. The allocation of tickets I found tolerable - demand was always going to outstrip supply. The fact that I would have had to sign up for a new credit card in order to buy some, I did not find tolerable. I refused to apply for any on general principle, and started to be overwhelmed with a blanket of bitterness. But then the other stories about sponsors started to creep out. The Games Lanes - facilitating Coca-Cola execs to be whisked around London like royalty while real Londoners sat in tailbacks. The fact that you wouldn't be able to buy chips, because McDonald's said so. The fact that someone was going to be paid to go around covering up logos on the hand dryers in the toilets, because they weren't an official sponsor. The branding police. Horror story after horror story was leaked, and I felt a weary sense of depression about corporate inevitability.

Then there was the feeling of dread about the infrastructure. I'm well versed in the uselessness of the Jubilee Line, and with a fortnight to go there was a series of catastrophic failures. With London being swamped with extra people, there was no way the tubes would cope. London would choke up and fail, a mediocre town masquerading as a global city, like Atlanta in 1996. I looked forward to the Olympic Games not with anticipation but with apprehension. This was to be a sorry mess.

I decided to volunteer for a hefty chunk of the Games - not as a Games Maker but in my usual rather more mundane capacity which I'm immensely proud of. On the night of the Opening Ceremony I was on the streets of Bloomsbury - Tottenham Court Road was deserted. It was surreal. I went home feeling rather flat. But then I hadn't seen the Opening Ceremony.

I must admit that I've never bothered watching an Opening Ceremony before. I assumed it was just a glitzy pageant with lots of sequins, naff music, fireworks and jingoistic bollocks. I watched the ceremony on iPlayer the next morning and felt a rather unusual emotion. I've always been a proud Londoner. I'm a proud Australian. I'm a fiercely proud Irishman. But even though I was born in Hammersmith, there's something which I rarely feel but which Danny Boyle managed to ignite. I felt a sudden uprush, an explosion or pride in being British.

The Opening Ceremony was designed for British people. The sequences - particularly the TV montages - were full of injokes for Britons. Michael Fish, the Shipping Forecast, EastEnders, Soho sex shops, Great Ormond Street - all were referenced in at least a passing way. This was our Games, said Boyle, and it's for us. Some bits didn't work. The "digital love story" was naff and McCartney was cringeworthy.

But the best moment was Bond. It was understated and perfect. It was just so Bond. It wasn't Daniel Craig; it WAS Bond. You sensed that the curl of his lip at the footman was real, the swagger was just right. But the star of the show? The Queen, of course. Her "Good evening, Mr Bond" wasn't a line that had been rehearsed for a few minutes; it was a line that had 60 years of preparation. Our Queen is no Juliana of the Netherlands; it's the fact that she has been so invisible for the last six decades that made that line so wonderful.

As for the rest of the Games, everything has already been said. They were majestic, awe-inspiring, wonderful. I went to the table tennis and had a great time. I watched more Red Button in two weeks than in the previous two years put together. I screamed at the TV whilst watching handball and archery, weightlifting and gymnastics. I cheered on Mo and Bradley. I let out a broad grin for Usain. The Olympics did everything I'd hoped and more.

The BBC coverage was superb from start to finish. Michael Johnson was a star but my surprise hero of the games was the camp-as-Christmas, dry-as-Prosecco Ian Thorpe. Balding and Barker, Jackson and Boardman, they were all fantastic, and the multiple coverage just demonstrated how lucky we are to live in an age of such rapidly advancing technology.

But my cynicism was behind me, and I was happy to be wrong. The tube was fantastic (I even came through City Airport at rush hour midway through the first week, without a hitch). The branding police were happily low-profile. LOCOG were not the faceless, unsmiling bureaucrats we'd all imagined ruining our Games. Yes, there were hitches with the sponsors not bothering to turn up for the events (and shame on them all) but for the most part, these Games were utterly fantastic.

Best of all, the traditions. The Olympic Rings are surely one of the most powerful, evocative logos in the world. The lighting of the flame at the Temple of Hera and journey to the Cauldron. The symbolism of the Marathon. The Olympic spirit. The Olympics DO have a purity that is absent in so much of society these days, a complete antidote to the usual summers of Sky Sports screaming about football transfer rumours.

Like most of London today, I feel bereft. There's a huge black hole where before we had something to look forward to. But like my mum with her memories of Olympic Rings on her school exercise books in Gippsland in 1956, I will have memories to last me a lifetime, even if most of them will be from the TV. London, we put on the greatest festival on earth, and I'm so proud.

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