Let the moaning end and the Olympic Games begin
Britain's attitude to the 2012 Olympics has so far been ambivalent at best. Anyone would have thought we were not going to enjoy them. Au contraire...
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Friday 13 July 2012
Are you exhausted by the Olympics yet? The opening ceremony is still two weeks off, and already I feel as if I've had a ringside seat at scores of Olympic events.
There was the Opening Ceremony of Grousing About the Cost Of It All, and the attendant computations that you could build 14 hospitals and a Stealth bomber for that kind of money. Next came the 800 metres of Whingeing at Lord Coe, the Locog people and the bullying sponsors. The Triathlon of Bleating, Cursing and Bellyaching at the credit-card monopoly was fun, as was the Men's Relay of Winking, Nudging and Going Phoarr at the idea of women's beach volleyball.
The Complaining About the Olympic Torch Marathon is, amazingly, still going on, as we try to feel excited that people we don't know are still running around the country with a metal stick on fire. The briefly memorable Bitching About the Olympic Logo event was replaced by Sniping About the Ubiquity of Those Boring Five Rings, whether they're hung like massive chains from Tower Bridge, or mown into the grass, 300 metres wide, in lovely Richmond Park so they can be seen from the air by visitors flying into Heathrow.
We've all enjoyed the Synchronised Grumbling about the ticket sales fiasco. We like Throwing the Hammer of Sarcasm at those people who've been offering to rent their houses to Olympics fans from abroad, assuring them that a property in South Shields or Durham is "just an hour's journey from the Olympic site".
Team Groaning and Protesting about excessive security and the positioning of ground-to-air missiles on the roofs of Stratford houses was followed by Free-style Whining about the lack of security guards at the Velodrome. An athletic display of Grousing and Objecting to the Closure of the M4, in order to mend the lanes reserved for athletes and VIPs, entertained us for a while. Individual medal-winning feats of Nitpicking and Finding Fault were recorded across cyberspace, as the online-comment malcontents bickered and mithered about corporate greed and the ban on non-McDonald's chips.
What else? Readers of Iain Sinclair's anti-Olympics book Ghost Milk, published in the spring, could revel in his fury at the despoliation of his beloved Lea Valley, his bitter denunciation of the Olympic Village and his dark suggestion that the whole project is a joint initiative of central government, local government and major retailers: "At the end there'll be just this huge Westfield, the Stadium will be renamed Westfield Stadium and the residential towers will be used, post-Olympics, as holding pens for asylum seekers."
When it comes to the Olympics 2012, we're all paid-up members of the Grouch Club. There isn't a single area of this massive project that we haven't thoroughly dissed and agreed to disparage. And now that it's here at last, coming over the cloudy horizon in a flood of striving humanity – athletes, boxers, divers, horsemen, cyclists, gymnasts, hoop-shooters, javelin launchers, shot-putters, jumpers, vaulters, sprinters – we have to face an awkward truth: we're probably going to love it.
The British have a perverse relationship with great occasions. We embrace the notion that we're pretty good at throwing a trousers-down smasheroo of a party – sorry, that we "have a flair for pageantry" – but we individually pretend we're not that bothered about attending. No sooner was the royal wedding announced last year than the blogosphere echoed with voices clamouring to be the first to say "Meh…" or "Well, I'm not impressed" and "William and Kate who?"
Playing down grand public occasion is a national pastime. Strangely, these Olympics had an easy ride at first. When in 2007 it was announced that Britain had won the right to host the 2012 Games, there was joy and frenzy across the capital, as if we'd won a major sporting trophy. The 7/7 bomb outrages on Tube and bus that followed next day meant that there was no time for disillusion to set in. We moved swiftly into defiance mode, vowing that no terrorist threat could stifle the centuries-old passion of the British population to form itself into large audiences and wave flags.
Five years later, we're frankly wearied by flag-waving, singing the national anthem and cheering Sir Paul McCartney (yet again). We've already done it for the Diamond Jubilee. We've rooted (but very, you know, discreetly,) for the England team in the Euros until the inevitable penalty collapse. And we've spent a year complaining about everything. But when the athletes arrive, we may surprise ourselves by the alacrity with which we'll grasp the actual games to our bosom.
I foresee 16 days of watercooler chat about the visual impact of athletes at the peak of fitness, and the curious mobile sculptures of endeavour: the divers twisting through the air, "falling with style" like Buzz Lightyear; the weightlifters squatting and trembling like human telephones; the strange, speeded-up-film quality of the hurdlers. These are sights to which we pay attention only once in four years, if that, but they're amazing. We feel like anthropologists who have stumbled on a species of humanoids striking ritualistic poses, folding themselves into contortions of deranged endeavour, all to win a metal coin hung on a ribbon.
I can guarantee that, by the closing ceremony on 12 August, we'll have a new pantheon of sporting celebrities whose achievements have stirred us. Who would not cheer for the Brownlee brothers, Jonny and Alistair, from Bradford, who have dominated the world triathlon races, from Spain to Sydney to San Diego, in the last three years and are now racing certs to win Britain's first-ever triathlon medals? (But will Johnny, 22, finally beat his annoyingly all-conquering older brother?)
All eyes will be on the brilliantly charismatic Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, to take the gold for Jamaica in the 100 metres. But coming up behind him, in a blur of speed, is the 18-year-old British hopeful Adam Gemili, a student at Barking and Dagenham College. On Wednesday night in Barcelona, he ran 100 metres in 10.05 seconds to win the World Junior Championships. Already the seventh-fastest British man in history, he's worth a look (but don't blink) at the Olympic Stadium.
Fans of home-grown amateurism will relish the fact that Britain is fielding its first-ever handball team. Before the London games were announced in 2007, handball had practically died out in this country; but it was decreed that the host nation should produce a team to rival the handball titans of north and east Europe. The men's and women's 14-strong squads have been formed from scratch, and will compete against the might of Sweden, Argentina, Tunisia and Iceland. Will Britain be an embarrassment in this game of high-speed running and crippling mid-air tackles? Or will they win?
And while the eyes of swimming enthusiasts will be on the gold-medal veteran Rebecca Adlington, and on the ferocious rivalry in the US swimming team between Michael Phelps and his popular rival Ryan Lochte, spare a thought for Keri-Anne Payne. She was the first Briton (of an eventual 550) to be named as an Olympic hopeful. Ms Payne's sport is open-water swimming – a deceptively mild term for a gruelling sport whose hazards include sharks, jellyfish, floating dead dogs, and random punches in the face from rivals frantically crawling through choppy seas towards the tape. The London open-water event is in the calm waters of the Serpentine, where the only hazards are swans. But Ms Payne will be worth watching – she was world champion in Shanghai last July, and could win a gold. The fact that she is also extremely pretty will not go unnoticed by less scrupulous and coldly objective newspapers than this one.
Already a star turn is Tom Daley, the Plymouth teenager with the boy-band physiognomy, who will be competing for gold in the solo and synchronised diving events. His synchro-partner is Peter Waterfield, 13 years his senior at 31 and a seasoned medal-winner – he won a silver in the Athens Olympics when Daley was still at primary school. But can they possibly win against the relentless Chinese who, since 1984, have won most of the available golds in platform, springboard and synchronised diving?
What do you mean, you don't care! The Olympics is all about suddenly discovering you care a lot whether one of Britain's unknown or half-recognised sporting stars somehow contrives to beat the rest of the world at wrestling or dressage or fencing with foils. It's time for a little guilty patriotism, as we consider the nations of the world against whom our athletes are ranged, and indulge in some armchair stereotyping. Is it alarming how firmly the Chinese have infiltrated so many sports? Why are the Scandinavians so good at handball? What do we make of the current Brazilian football team? Why has India such an unimpressive Olympic record over the years, or are they biding their time? Can Putin's Russia no longer produce top-quality women gymnasts (they went home empty-handed in 2008)?
Will Britain win more gold medals than Australia? The sports minister of the latter, Kate Lundy, has a bet on the outcome with our own sports minister, Hugh Robertson: if Britain wins, she'll have to row the Olympic rowing course wearing Team GB colours; if Australia triumph, he'll have to jog around London's Australia House in Oz colours. That's the spirit in which we should be taking the Olympics – ironic rivalry tinged with pride, patriotism with a sense of humour, a collective amazement at the quality of human striving and the resonance of human triumph.
Emergency plans on way if M4 stays shut
With athletes and officials set to begin arriving en masse this weekend, ministers are drawing up emergency plans in case the M4 between Heathrow and central London is still closed on Monday – the day the Olympic Village opens.
Options could include opening a single "Zil lane" on the motorway – a stretch of road reserved for dignitaries — or reserving services on the Heathrow Express for Olympic arrivals. The original estimate was that work would be finished by yesterday and Highways Agency officials have again said they expect work to be completed in the "next few days".
Eliasson's sunflowers light the way
Artist Olafur Eliasson's first proposition for the London 2012 cultural festival – including a recording of people breathing – was met with derision. His latest offering, unveiled yesterday, is far more practical. Little Sun comprises solar-powered lamps shaped like sunflowers, of which the Danish-Icelandic artist hopes to sell up to a million. Profits will help developing countries.
Hungry Boris keeps hair on
Mayor of London Boris Johnson was happy to sample some of the culinary delights that will be on offer to athletes in the 24-hour food hall of the Olympic Village yesterday, but was reportedly less keen on the on-site hairdresser touching his famous thatch.
Safe haven for medal winners
G4S may not have enough staff to protect the Olympic Park, but are advising London nightclub Chinawhite on a safe where victorious athletes can stash their medals while they party at exclusive event The Last Lap.
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