If you have had the good fortune (sic) to read my previous article entitled “My Olympic Journey”, you will have gathered that my passion for the Games has waned over time. In fact, I didn’t watch a single minute of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing in 2008, when Great Britain garnered its second highest medal tally – 47 – in the modern era.
Yet, three years earlier, at around a quarter to one on Wednesday 6 July 2005 to be exact, I had stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square with hundreds of office and shop workers, and a group of mildly bewildered Italian schoolgirls in matching pink and purple backpacks, and witnessed the fateful and surprising words of President Jacques Rogge, speaking from the organisation’s 117th session in Singapore: “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing the games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of……..London”.
The detonation of delight following that agonising, reality TV show-like pause was all the more exhilarating for the fact that it had been widely expected by that stage that Paris, in its third attempt at securing the ultimate gig, had snapped the winning tape in a photo finish ahead of London.
Of course, the elation of that afternoon was brutally crushed within a mere twenty hours when news started filtering through about explosions on underground trains between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, King’s Cross and Russell Square, at Edgware Road, Old Street and Moorgate, and at Tavistock Square on the number 30 bus travelling from Marble Arch to Hackney Wick.
My tube train was halted in the tunnel between Westminster and St. James’s Park for around twenty minutes, occasioning angry mutterings from fellow commuters accustomed to signal failures and emergency track repairs. It was only after we were released into an eerily quiet daylight that we discovered that the Aldgate blast had been on one of the trains directly in front of us.
As manager of the director of a government department human resources’ office, the remainder of my day was spent trying to account – to both statistically minded management and anxious friends and families – for the hundred or so staff expected in the office that day. Thankfully, nobody was lost.
However, others had not been so lucky. The prospect of the Olympic Games in this suddenly terrorised city, seven years and 52 lives away, vanished as quickly as it had been acclaimed.
And, irrespective of the tragic events of that day, that was always likely to be the case, at least for the ordinary citizen not involved in the planning and preparation. But it did not need such carnage to convince those of us living and working in London to realise that.
Beijing came and went and still my interest was not ignited. It was only in 2010 when I began research on a 2,200 word paper for my travel and tourism qualification on the state of preparedness of the public transport system, that I began to allow myself positive thoughts again about what the Games itself and, most importantly, their legacy might be for both the east end of London and the country as a whole.
From that date, I have kept a keener and better informed eye on developments. Moreover, I have been fortunate enough, living so close to the capital, to watch the Olympic Park and its stadia take shape and feel the sense of pride and excitement growing in the area around it.
Now, us Brits are a cynical lot, and we love to moan, which, given that one of our most familiar phrases is “mustn’t grumble”, is rather ironic (the capacity for which is also part of our national psyche). And I claim my share of that not particularly attractive character trait, but, in respect of the Olympics in the incomparable city of London, where I have been blessed to spend so much of my life, including living there for eight years, I feel it is time to celebrate rather than snipe.
That doesn’t stop me smirking, raising my eyebrows and shaking my head when I read the stories of the firm handed vast sums of money to ensure the Games were safe and secure, failing to recruit anywhere near enough staff and having to be bailed out by the armed forces, or of lengthy queues at immigration at Heathrow Airport and threats of strikes (thankfully now averted) by the very same staff operating those desks. Or of the closure of the vital M4 motorway route into the city, of taxi drivers protesting at the installation of Olympic road lanes and coach drivers getting lost en route from Heathrow Airport to Stratford.
All of these are ammunition for the soulless and negative people determined to see the Games fail. And yes, the cost has exceeded the original budget threefold, those we voted for (or rather didn’t) will make as much political capital as possible out of any successes – and watch for repeated attempts to “bury bad news”, and the dead hand of corporate sponsorship will be all pervasive. But these, sadly, are inevitable consequences of the staging of any modern global event.
And all this against a backdrop of one of the wettest summers on record.
However, what has struck me most in recent weeks – and I know this is a cliché – is the manner in which ordinary people, from all corners of the island, have embraced the spirit of the Olympics, as symbolised in the joyous and exhilarating torch relay. The sight of the torch adorning such iconic landmarks as the London Eye, Snowdonia, Forth Road Bridge and even scooting through the Hampton Court Maze, has been humbling and inspirational. I am even astonished that my teeth no longer grate when I hear the words “it is the opportunity of a lifetime”, because, after all, it is, isn’t it?
And whilst a good proportion of the screaming, mobile phone camera toting, followers (and runners) have been children, whipped, no doubt, into a frenzy by media, parents and teachers alike, that really doesn’t matter.
Anyway, isn’t that the point? If nothing else, the Games are about instilling a passion for sport, healthy living and pride in one’s community in the coming generations, and howsoever that has been generated, the genuine, not engineered, enthusiasm of thousands of young people throughout the nation that we have witnessed can only be heartening.
Moreover, I was struck by what rapper Dizzee Rascal, whose music is very popular amongst teenagers but leaves me cold, perhaps because I emigrated from teenagedom some while ago, had to say in an interview with the BBC last night. He hails from the area adjacent to the Olympic Park and many of his childhood friends still live in the vicinity. Although some still harboured mistrust towards the authorities, he declared that the reaction was generally a positive and optimistic one, and saw a new hope emerging in the community.
That is, of course, the huge challenge that now faces those responsible for delivering the Olympic legacy in that and other deprived parts of the capital in particular. This really must not fail.
The cynics will argue that the Games are a complete waste of money, a classic instance of bread and circuses, deflecting the brainwashed masses from the reality of a country in double-dip recession and a government devising social policies that would have made the Thatcher cabinet blush.
I don’t belittle those claims, and will not lose sight of the domestic political context within which the Games are being played out, but I believe that it is now time to get behind the event, the volunteers, the athletes, London, the country, and especially those young people whose futures are so dependent upon their success.
So will I go?
I had not applied for any tickets, and although there are still some available, primarily for the football (which I have always had difficulty accepting as an Olympic sport), I will need a lottery win this weekend to allow me to purchase any now.
But there are, of course, the Paralympic Games in a few weeks, with tickets still available both for the Olympic Park experience and some sports. Securing some is now a priority.
I will be sparing a thought too for the friends and families of those who perished on 7 July 2005.
Let the Games begin.