Michael Bywater: Forget faster, higher, stronger. I'll settle for a more sedentary Games

Every athlete wants to beat the record, but in our own lives that ideal is a fallacy, not the solution


Yesterday evening's opening ceremonies – including "real farmyard animals" (as opposed to what?) – were planned as a monument to the Olympic Spirit. The bells rang. Behind the scenes men with Sport Face – instead of an actual face, there's an extra bicep, covered in anger – squeezed themselves like Porkinsons into their blazers. G4S men lowered the head gently into the hands and wished it were all over (which, for them, it probably is). Out in the tax havens, sleek men on sleeker yachts fondled their bungs, and in air-conditioned offices PR and marketing functionaries beamed down at the petrol haze of gridlock and smiled at each other, thinking of the Zil lanes.

And in the Olympic Village, the people it's all supposedly about do whatever athletes do before they go on. I imagine it's much the same as actors or musicians. Some go into a sort of trance. Some undoubtedly throw up. Some will lie on their beds groaning. Some will suddenly suffer acute, life-threatening and entirely imaginary maladies – "Oh no! My pancreas!" – and others will become garrulous and hypomanic, wondering if someone's put something in their isotonic sport drink (because one thing that top-class athletes don't drink is Coca-Cola. Nor do they eat McDonald's beastburgers). Oh, oops. PROHIBITED WORDS. But never mind. The Locog enforcers won't be kicking the door in. They'll have learned their lesson from G4S, and simply do the same as everyone else: "work at home" and watch the Games on the telly.

Which may remind us what it's theoretically all about.It's not about Zil lanes and finessing the traffic lights. It's not about people flagging down their 17th taxi in a row and wondering why the drivers won't stop (because it's in a Porker Lane, and Jeremy Hunt will rip their mouths off). Nor is it about the rewriting and privatising of physical London, a city of immense complexity that nevertheless, like an organism, like your own body, imprints itself permanently on some internal retina: my foot, my hand, this church, that corner, these mansion flats, those plane trees.

Londoners know where they are at all times and those who live east of Charlotte Street most of all. They – we – move through time as well as space. Ghosts nudge our elbows as we walk, keeping us on track. London is, as William Blake said, "a Human awful wonder of God". But that wonder, those ghosts, only touch those who live there. People who impose will never know it, and the Olympics, for all its qualities, imposes. It is trying to forbid London to its own people. Mustn't go here, open your bag, no entry, is this your car sir ...

A friend who lives in east London woke up one morning recently to find that she was somewhere else. A giant hoarding had been put up, with one of those paintings on it that are supposed to show you what whatever-it-is-behind-it will look like when whoever-they-are have finished whatever-they're-doing. But this was a picture, hyper-real, of somewhere else altogether. What has that to do with sporting prowess, mens sana in corpore sano? Nothing. It'll be about the money.

Heaven knows. But we're stuck. Don't get on this Tube; don't use that bus route; don't get caught out; don't leave the house. It's like a sort of strange TV miniseries aftermath. But is that necessarily a bad thing?

Opening ceremonies in their magnificence are meant to be the modern equivalent of a 17th-century masque, the sort of thing Lully put on for Louis XIV. A demonstration of raw power: look! We can take control of an entire capital city and they will beg and petition for the privilege! A monument to the Olympic spirit. But a monument in itself says nothing. There were monuments of Saddam all over Iraq. England is littered with equestrian statues of now-forgotten soldiers and rapacious lords. Hiroshima. The Holocaust. Vietnam. 9/11. Opposing those are Barry Flanagan's glorious hares, all life in them. The statue of Bach in Leipzig. But a monument itself is ethically mute. It is a sign merely: "These were our values when this monument was made".

The Olympic values – and I don't mean the CocaMacVisa balls – are a problem. For the athletes, I have the same awestruck respect as for any virtuoso. They can do something wonderful, and they can do it, partly from a gift of Nature, but most from the sort of intense, dedicated practice, over thousands of hours, that most of us simply couldn't cope with.

But the idea that at the core of it all is striving, is competition, is beating others – that is less appealing. Isn't it that idea that's behind our current problems? The idea that life is about getting out there and fighting, about whupping the other guy, and, most of all, about endless financial growth: isn't that, not the solution, but the problem? The inability to say, "Oh, that's enough. We're fine. That'll do"?

Every Olympic athlete wants to win gold, but only one of them can. Every Olympic athlete wants even more to beat the world record, but how often can the world record be beaten? Evolution doesn't move that fast. But our economic and personal lives seem to be learning the process – improve yourself, earn more, grow as a person – but not the fallacy.

Originally the Olympics were for young men, and these were the skills you'd need in the near continuous state of warfare in which classical Athens existed. Now it glorifies, above all, money, power and politics. The athletes are the instruments. And, like all of us who are merely instrumental in others' ambitions, they do all the work, from a genuine conviction of its value.

Me, I'll stay in. With the telly off. I'll read Pascal again. That digression in the Pensées where he says he's identified the source of our unhappiness, "une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre". "Men only seek conversation and entering games," he goes on, "because they cannot remain with pleasure at home ... hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir ... men seek rest in a struggle against difficulties, and when they have conquered these, rest becomes intolerable."

Good luck, everyone. I hope you all win. I hope all of you beat all the rest of you. I hope you all have the loveliest of times. For me, though, it's sitting quietly in my room, cheering myself with the thought that that, at least, is no zero-sum game. Now's your chance, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior SEO / Content Executive

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Junior SEO/ORM Content Execut...

Recruitment Genius: Search Account Manager

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive

£25000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an acknowledged...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Central London, Bank

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary, at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, in May last year  

Why is Jeremy Hunt telling everyone that he took his children to A&E instead of his local GP?

Charlie Cooper

Daily catch-up: sculpture, silly jokes and a guide to solving all engineering problems

John Rentoul
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital