Games Over

 

On the day that London was awarded the Olympic Games, back in July 2005, the whole city – the city I live in – rejoiced. It seemed right, for a place soon to overtake New York as the financial centre of the World, a metropolis that was changing and evolving for the better, it felt like it was indeed our time.

Added to which, we beat Paris to it, and us Brits love sticking two fingers up at the French.

That joy and optimism was then shattered the very next day when suicide bombers attacked. I was working outdoors in central, and remember the fire engines screaming down Park Lane, urging the traffic to move with a tone that suggested something very wrong. From that day onwards, one couldn’t help but feel that maybe these Games were cursed. Over the next few years, as the plans unfolded, and bills for security and infrastructure augmented, so did the bad sentiment. In an era when bankers’ bonuses could buy a small football club, why should we, the general public, your average worker, fork out yet more tax to fund such an ostentatious extravaganza?

And then came the recession. Recent Olympics had become modern equivalents of Roman gladiatorial tournaments, each new Emperor trying to out-do the last one with a glorious spectacle of blood and sweat, each new stadium a bigger and better Colosseum. Sydney set the bar; Athens followed suit; Beijing went one better. But such spectacle comes at a huge cost, a cost that is not guaranteed to be repaid, as Greece discovered.

Times had changed. Was the massive investment really worth it for a bit of fun ‘n’ games that only lasts a fortnight? The same amount spent on schools and hospitals would have a far deeper impact. Ministers spoke of legacy, and ‘inspiring a generation’, saying that a Great Games for Great Britain would get more of us off our daytime-television-watching arses and down to our local sports centres; but doubters were wary of the ‘Wimbledon Effect’ – the period after the tennis when sales of rackets soar, rapidly declining to previous levels when people realise it’s hard work. Or it’s expensive. Or it rains a lot.

Years of non-stop ‘improvements’ to the road and rail networks acted as a constant (and irritating) reminder to the populous that London was preparing for the Games, brushing itself up before the World’s spotlight bore down on us, a critical appraisal that we couldn’t afford to mess up. Success could mean increased tourist revenue, a rise in stockmarkets, and a slightly smug national glow. Failure could spell disaster.

Fast People

But with major constructions habitually taking longer and costing more than proposed, and the sweltering Tube network treating us to signal failures on a daily basis, a monumental cock-up seemed the more likely outcome. Combine that with the threat of terrorism, and you could excuse us for being pessimistic. Of course, most of us wanted the Games to go well, but in the back of our minds we were thinking that was about as plausible as two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine.

The big day approached. The anticipated cock-up seemed to be splendidly on track: the Tube still had regular delays, the security company couldn’t find enough employees, and trying to get tickets online was like arguing with a drunk. Furthermore, as if those in proximity to the stadium weren’t disgruntled enough, it was deemed necessary to place ground-to-air missiles on top of residents’ houses. Great for starting a conversation at a barbecue, I thought, but not everyone shared my view.

Then it arrived. For the first time in British history, more people stayed in on a Friday night than went out to get smashed, as the nation tuned in to the Opening Ceremony. We were never going to beat China at the whole coordinated kung fu drumming thing, so I think we did well to stay clear of that, and gave the World our greatest exports – quirky humour and timeless music (and, er, free healthcare).

What followed was fifteen days of flag-waving fervour like never before, as the gold medals we were promised by Barmy Boris (‘enough to bail out Greece and Spain’) rolled in with certainly more reliability than our trains, and the country’s productivity fell by 90% as we tuned in every half-hour for yet another moment of glory. Our final medals tally looked like a basketball score (ironically the one sport we’re still shit at), and Britain was once again Great.

But what now? Once the jingoistic cheers have died down and normal service is resumed, will it all have been worth it? Will there be a surge in people taking up dressage, canoeing and archery? Will Team GB (or Team UK, as it should really be) claim even more medals in Rio? Or will we have a brief badminton swat, fall off a bike, and decide staying in to watch X Factor is an all-round better option?

Financially, the figures probably don’t add up. But there are the things that money can’t buy, like the feeling that we – as a nation or as individuals – can achieve anything if we put our minds to it; the knowledge that normal blokes with sideburns can be World-beaters; and that swimmer Chad le Clos’s over-excited Dad perhaps did more for the UK’s reputation than anyone else.

Canoe Slalom – Like bathtime but with points

The notion was also proposed that money isn’t everything. In a country where the Youth are fed fanciful hopes of fame, where a good education is secondary to chasing dreams of being the Next Big Thing, there’s optimism that the younger generation will trade their false idols for genuine ones. Overpaid, under-performing footballers might be swapped for athletes who scrape a living but get it right on the night; surgically ‘enhanced’ celebrities with no discernible talent may give way to hard-grafters who nurture theirs. According to Nicola Adams’ trainer, she would’ve been a feral miscreant without her sport; now she’s the first female boxing champion. After watching the Beijing games, Jade Jones took up Taekwondo aged 15; four years later, she may not have a mansion in the countryside but she has something most 19-year-olds don’t – an Olympic Gold. At that age, I felt I deserved an award for walking the dog.

How many teenagers it has inspired, I’ve no idea, but it’s certainly got my blood pumping, like when my Gym Playlist blasts out ‘Eye of the Tiger’. I’m not getting any younger, and by the time the next Games comes around I’ll be bordering on ‘past it’. I always thought there must be one Olympic sport I could succeed at, the question is, which one? Canoe slalom, taekwondo, 50m rifle…? Hell, I’ll try them all. As soon as it stops raining…

Advertisements