Something Extraordinary

As one or two people may have noticed - and I hope I'm not flattering myself unduly in thinking that - I've been lying low recently. It hasn't necessarily been a deliberate decision but rather a consequence of a lot happening in the day job and a memorable - truly memorable - trip to London for the thirtieth Olympiad.

Ordering your thoughts after something like that isn't easy.

I used to really love watching major championship athletics. It was bigger then, in the era of Coe, of Ovett, of Cram, of Thompson, of Edwin Moses, and Roger Kingdom and Sergei Bubka. In the years that followed the disgrace of Johnson and the unravelling of the state-sponsored doping programmes in eastern Europe, I largely lost that love. I'd check back in every four years during the Olympics, but, even allowing for some heady moments with Gunnell in Barcelona and Kelly Holmes in Athens, it never endured.

The last week has reminded me what it was I saw in it with more clarity than ever.

All sports have their signature elements, but two aspects of track athletics are among the most dramatic moments to be found in any sporting arena. They are the silent pause that precedes the gun in a sprint, and the bell that marks the start of the final lap of a distance race.

One is about anticipation and the other is about the inevitability of climax. Hearts stop for less.

Athletics, though is only one part of the Olympic experience.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to attend the London Olympic Games in the British summer of 2012 knows that.

It is early August and it is late in east London. A sunlit early evening has given way first to dusk over the Olympic Stadium and then to darkness, broken by the lights that surround the arena and also by those which are attached to the other structures which punctuate the Olympic Park: the Orbit, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome. Further away, to the south, are the lights of Canary Wharf, and to the west those of central London.

It is cool but not cold and there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people here. We are among the crowd and we are required to wait to enter Stratford Station. This is no hardship: in fact it has been a difficult thing to drag ourselves away from the Park. As we walk away people are constantly turning around, taking photographs. This has been their field of dreams.

While we wait, a young Irishman who carries echoes of Dylan Moran and is one of the army of ‘Games Makers’ sits in what appears to be a tennis umpire’s chair and attempts to keeps us entertained. His stories are rambling and imperfectly delivered, but no matter. Everyone is in a good mood. These Olympic Games do that to people.

As we walk forward into the station a lad of about twelve runs ahead, high fiving a series of policemen, troops and Games Makers. Everyone is smiling. The thought occurs that this is Great Britain. This sort of thing doesn’t happen here. Except that, in London in the summer of 2012, it does.

Earlier in the day we explore the Olympic Park. After passing through the gates we turn to the right in front of the stadium and look down what is known as London Way. The sight which confronts us reminds me of a Biblical Epic. For as far as the eye can see there is an unbroken sea of humanity. It is moving - in more ways than one - as people either walk away from the Stadium after the morning’s athletic events or return to the heart of the Park from its distant fringes. We have travelled to the park on the Docklands Light Railway from the southern end of east London but it is hard to avoid the sensation that we have arrived on a different planet. Something extraordinary has been created here.

The signature sights of the Park are the Olympic Stadium itself, the Aquatics Centre, the Velodrome, the Basketball Arena and the Copper Box, intertwined with flower beds planted with a range of species of British wild flowers which add a flavour of originality and colour to the scene. Once we are part of the crowd it is obvious that the atmosphere is the same blend of happiness, friendliness and tolerance that we have encountered at other Olympic venues. In stark contrast with most other major sporting events held in Britain, nobody is drunk.

There is nationalism, but it is not the aggressive, blinkered partisanship of football. It is the benign, sincere national pride of the Last Night of the Proms. It feels right.

At the far end of the Park the Great Britain men’s hockey team is playing against Pakistan, and, as they score two early goals, thunderous cheers ring out, letting those who are admiring the architecture, or smelling the flowers, or watching the swallows, or following the tennis on the big screen, know that there is live sport taking place. It is a welcome reminder that reality is out there somewhere.

It was never meant to be like this. From the time London was awarded the right to stage the thirtieth modern Olympic Games on 6th July 2005, the popular expectation, encouraged by the lazy, reflexive cynicism of the media, was that the event would be terminally damaged by what was perceived as typical British ineptitude. The venues wouldn’t be built on time, or, if they were, London’s transport system wouldn’t be capable of coping with the additional demands placed upon it.

None of this has happened. Although there is an early mix-up over the display of flags at a football match, and concerns over the number of empty seats in some of the venues, the organisation of the Games is exceptional.

In the Olympic Stadium we have seen Greg Rutherford qualify for the final of the Men’s Long Jump final. The following evening he will win Great Britain’s first gold medal in the event since 1964. We have also seen Jessica Ennis, whose elfin grace and winning smile re-define the girl next door cliché for the modern age, compete in two events on the way to her gold medal in the Women’s Heptathlon.

Yes, something extraordinary has been created here. Of course, it is necessary to consider how a lasting legacy of this can be established, but this is for others and it is for the future.

We are finally allowed to move forward towards the station. The movement of the crowd is synchronous, orderly, contemplative. Although the prevailing mood is one of joy, there is little exuberance. It is late, people are tired, and there is a sense that they are, whether consciously or unconsciously, reflecting on what they have been fortunate enough to experience.

This is a time none of us will ever forget.


Anonymous said...

Brian, in your usual elegant way you've written something that celebrates the Olympics as a bringing together of people for sport. It sounds wonderful. I've heard too much (from the BBC) about this Olympics being special because of the medals GB have won. Yes, that is fun. But the honour of hosting the Olympics is discharged by running a smooth, inclusive and friendly event. If we've managed that, it is something to be really proud of.

Brian Carpenter said...

Thanks, Chris, I appreciate it.

I have no problem with celebrating the achievements of the British competitors (I did plenty of it myself), but I do feel that the most significant achievement of the Games lay in the fact that they were so superbly organised and the sheer existence of the Olympic Park. It was an incredible place to be during the Games and I'm certain I'll still be thinking and talking about my day there in forty or fifty years' time (if I make it that far).

I'm pleased that came across.

Subscribe in a reader