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

Share

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

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

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Recruitment Genius: Female Bank Weekend Support Workers

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: You will need to be able to follow instr...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Luxury Brand

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global wholesaler and reta...

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager - Department Store

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This organization is one of the founding names...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

'You’re just jealous', and other common misconceptions about the Protein World advert

Hannah Atkinson
David Cameron has said he is not going to “roll over” and let Labour leader Ed Miliband and the SNP’s Alex Salmond wreck the achievements of the last five years  

After five years of completely flaccid leadership, I'm glad something 'pumps up' David Cameron

Joe Sandler Clarke
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence