At 8.08, on the night of the 8th of August 2008, a collective sat in a quiet room, open-mouthed, and gasped an almighty “fucking hell”. The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony started in the eye-popping Bird Nest Stadium, and the expletives of panicking board members reverberated around the offices of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG). A rethink was needed if the country was not to be humiliated on a truly global scale. More than exporting Jeremy Kyle, or Tony Blair, this could really show us up.
As the World’s economic collapse played out in front of us, it was apparent from an early stage that, simply put, we could not buy a bigger beginning to the Greatest Show On Earth. As the budget of the London games continued to rocket, eyebrows were raised and questions asked: do we need the games? Should we prioritise the costs of this extravaganza and the infrastructure needed to deliver it, whilst the cutbacks required to balance the debts of previous governments were going deeper and deeper?
And so, as the lights were dimmed in the openly-admitted, more frugal Olympic Stadium, the nation held it’s breath. The excruciatingly confidential details had not been leaked, and the guessing games began as to how we would possibly match the Beijing spectacular. But, from the moment the rings of fire joined together, then massively trumped by The Queen spinning around to face Daniel Craig’s James Bond (to millions of viewers’ pointing at their televisions, shouting “it is…it FUCKING ACTUALLY IS HER!”) we not only breathed a sigh of relief, but actually plumped our chests out and said this is what we’re all about. Humour, pageantry, and a history that we should start not only re-familiarising ourselves with, but to also be really bloody proud of.
Danny Boyle’s ceremony set the tone for the games like no other has. Unable to buy in the sheer volume of amazingness that Beijing managed – China’s big, newly-moneyed, economic super-power rebranding exercise – he deliberately identified what has made this small island what we are envied for: industrial invention, the NHS, music, it was all there. Oh, and we invented the internet. And here’s The Specials. Or Dizzee Rascal. Got that? Good. I hope the rest of the World had no idea what was going on.
For every Mike Oldfield disaster, there were two Fuck Buttons records. Beat that, Beijing. You had a thousand drummers, we had Mr Bean with Simon Rattle, and Chariots of Fire, and terrible weather forecasting – because we know our weather is shitty, and laugh about it. And, as the athletes were introduced to the stadium, we showed that we could control a crowd of international strangers better than anyone – all that practicing with the Occupy protesters had honed our kettling skills to a truly literal World-beating standard. We’d done it. And as the torch was lit by the next generation of athletes, to enforce the fabled legacy for which it is thought we won the games seven years ago, it was time for the games themselves to begin…..
What LOCOG did brilliantly, was to incorporate London’s architectural and historical buildings into the heart of the action – beach volleyball at Horseguard’s Parade and the equestrian events at Greenwich worked perfectly. But, one of my lasting memories of the games happened at Lord’s, the home of cricket. Karen Hultzer, a shapeless, but joyful, middle-aged South African archer, was about to take on sleek and classically styled Italian, Pia Lionetti. Whilst Lionetti was taking her aim, lining up the target and generally preparing herself, Hultzer was stood facing the other way, hands on hips, staring at the famous pavilion. She was glancing at her coach, shaking her head, saying she couldn’t believe it. She was at Lord’s, a mythical place she had only ever seen on tv thousands of miles away, and never from actually on the famous pitch. The Italian, from a non-cricket playing nation, was totally oblivious to the heritage and history that it obviously held for her South African opponent. It was a wonderful moment, as much for both aspects: that the location meant so much and so little in proportionate measure was what this games was about. For the record, Hultzer got completely gubbed, but for her, it was just being there. It was a truly Olympic moment.
Another contrast was that of two of Team GB’s darlings, and medal hopefuls. Bradley ‘Wiggo’ Wiggins, – the first English winner of the Tour de France and sporting the sideburns of a 70’s science teacher from a racist comprehensive school – and Tom Daley, the 17 year old, high-diving heartthrob with the body of a greek God, and the face of an Asda sales assistant. After Wiggins won his gold medal, during his post-race interview he declared that he had seven Olympic medals, but “only four that count”, referring to his golds. His drive and will to win apparent in his dismissal of his silver and two bronzes. Wow, what a champion, we thought. But contrast that with the sheer joy of Daley when he won his bronze, showing that actually, taking part and grading your success by the colour of the metal hanging from your neck might suck some of the joy out of the competition altogether.
It dawned on your writer that, 200 miles away from London, we were in danger of missing out on what really would be a once in a lifetime event. When the tickets had gone on sale, the balloting and allocation systems were deeply suspect. You could apply for tickets and not know what you were going to get. You could end up with tickets for different events miles apart from each other at the same time. Or that due to sponsorship, you could only purchase tickets with a Visa card – no other credit cards were accepted. All of which was exclusive rather than inclusive and didn’t sit well. For me, I could have lived with it. But for my children, I didn’t want them in twenty years time asking why we don’t get involved or attend any events. “Because your father was a grumpy bastard that refused to put his hand in his pocket, and because you lived in Manchester at that point….” would be the retort. Both are true, but I remedied this by attending one of the football matches at Old Trafford, and got our own Olympic experience. When I am asked that same question by my children in twenty years time, I can tell them that they were more interested in going to Wagamamas than watching the sodding game. But I digress. We were part of it, and utterly gripped.
And so was the nation. Not a ticket left at any events, the country rooted in front of the BBC’s staggering coverage. The World stood still. No news, no soap operas, nothing else seemed to matter to a vast majority of the population. A lot of the ‘stuff’ we have to deal with seemed to vaporise and disappear as we put our faith in the hands and feet of athletes, not the grubby mits and sweaty suits of politicians and bankers. But would it last?
Well, yes it has. The fact that almost every ticket has been sold for the Paralympic Games, eclipsing any previous games sales, shows that the British public’s appetite to be involved and keep the party going is stronger than ever.
Channel 4’s brilliant billboard advertising campaign, ‘Thanks for the warm-up’ was a statement of intent: identifying athletes with differing disabilities, but a unified attitude that they are deadly serious about what they do. They weren’t here to be patronised, but to be taken as seriously as their able-bodied contemporaries that had competed two weeks before. And then the tv ads upped the ante by using Public Enemy’s ‘Harder Than You Think’ – a band so uncompromising and confrontational, they have been challenging conformity for 25 years. A band that tries to make you change not necessarily what you think, but how you think.
And maybe, just maybe, that is the true legacy of the games: that if the reported £9bn spent on the games actually encourages changes of attitude to disability, and sent a wave of optimism across the country that we could actually believe in the spirit of human nature and celebrate this great land, then maybe it was money well spent.
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