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.Reuse content