It was the longest of fortnights, it was the shortest of fortnights.
In witnessing the most exhilarating public event of my life, I, along with millions of others, was enraptured by, and became not a little knowledgeable about, previously obscure and disregarded sports like taekwondo, dressage, beach volleyball and BMX racing (I still draw the line at synchronised swimming), fuelled by the BBC’s all-embracing coverage.
But now they are over, gone as quickly as they arrived. What do I do now between the hours of 9am and midnight? Where are the rowing coxless pairs heats, 58kg weightlifting semi-finals and 50m rifle 3 position shooting final when you need them, and not just because they passed the time but because they inspired and enthralled us?
But let’s not dwell on my post-Games melancholia just yet.
Apologies in advance to my international readers – this is an unashamedly GB-centric piece, and merely passing reference to the prodigious feats of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Oscar Pistorius, David Rudisha and many others does not diminish their extraordinary achievements.
It really all started on the first Wednesday (day 5) when my wife and I, intrigued but ticketless, decided to travel to Stratford and spend the evening at the Westfield shopping centre adjacent to the Olympic Park. As I had left the house, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning had just won Team GB’s first and, what seemed at the time, long overdue, gold medal in the women’s rowing pair.
Delivered in time by an efficient public transport system that belied the anxiety expressed by the IOC in the bidding process, I was able to marvel at the big screen with hundreds of others as the hugely popular Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins doubled the tally in the men’s individual cycling time trial at Hampton Court.
The Olympic Stadium, home to the sometimes eccentric but always chest-swelling Opening Ceremony five days previously, was not to re-open for another 72 hours when the track and field athletics were scheduled to start. But the aquatics centre and other venues in the park were already providing thrilling action. The atmosphere in the adjoining mall was correspondingly electrifying.
The immediate impression on stepping off the high speed train at Stratford International was that there was a giant party going on, to which the whole world had been invited – after all, isn’t that what the Olympics is meant to be?
Athletes, coaches, officials, military personnel, volunteers, spectators and shoppers mingled in a festive, friendly atmosphere that would have disarmed the most hardened cynic.
Over there are two athletes dressed in Eritrean track suits with bulging carrier bags from River Island and John Lewis. Outside the Waitrose supermarket a soldier shares a joke with a couple of young Brazilian girls (beach volleyball competitors maybe?). And everywhere the “happy, shiny” Volunteers in their pink and purple outfits are directing pedestrian traffic and dispensing unlimited advice and bonhomie.
Everyone is smiling (the smile, along with the tears, becomes an abiding memory of the Games). There is not a hint of the stressed undercurrent that haunts busy shopping centres at any other time.
Is this Great Britain I ask myself? Is this the country that many of its own citizens said couldn’t be trusted to organise the biggest of all peacetime projects? Is this the city with the broken transport system? Are these the people notorious for being unwelcoming to visitors?
Not any more, at least for these two weeks.
And it just got better and better.
Yes, and I cried as much, nay probably more, than anybody at the swift procession of triumph and heartbreak assailing our TV screens, and not just those of the British participants. I will never forget the sight of Sarah Attar, the first Saudi Arabian woman ever to appear in the Games, lying crumpled on the track after pulling her hamstring immediately after springing from the blocks in her 100m hurdles heat.
Nor can I dismiss from my thoughts the sight of the exhausted and distressed Zac Purchase, virtually having to be carried out of the boat by his partner, Mark Hunter, after just missing out on the gold to Denmark in the lightweight men’s double sculls.
Most poignant of all were the interviews with competitors who, having put their lives on hold for the past four years for this “once in a lifetime opportunity” (the most frequently uttered quote of the Games), performed miserably when they arrived at the very moment that was meant to validate all that hard work and sacrifice. Whilst British triple jumper Phillips Idowu may be the most high profile casualty, there were many others who failed to get out of their heats or, perhaps most criminally of all, did not achieve their personal best on the biggest stage.
Of the 65 GB medal winners, which were my favourites? A difficult choice but here, with apologies in particular to Sir Chris Hoy, the scary Ben Ainslie, the not so scary Jessica Ennis, the Brownlee brothers and, well, everybody else who captured gold, silver or bronze, are my top five:
1. Mo Farah, the Somali born Muslim who came to London at the age of eight, and through sheer hard work and sacrifice, was taken to the hearts of his adopted country and became on successive Saturday evenings, one of its greatest ever athletes;
2. Nicola Adams, the first ever Olympic woman’s boxing gold medallist, who said at the start of her campaign that she only wanted to make her mum proud, and having won, was going to celebrate with a trip to Nando’s;
3. Double gold cyclist, Laura Trott, whose infectious, post-race interviews (“I can’t believe this is happening….I’m just a 10 year old kid”) were as joyful as her performances were thrilling;
4. Jade Jones, our youngest gold medallist, in the women’s 57kg category of taekwondo who described her victory as “bonkers”- she could kick my head in any day; and
5. Bradley Wiggins – after his heroics in the Tour de France, striking of the Olympic bell in the Opening Ceremony and handsome time trial victory, “Sir Brad” became a bit of a forgotten man during the last ten days of the Games as new British heroes emerged. He probably preferred it that way as it would have allowed him to continue getting “blind drunk”. His feats can never be underestimated though, and he remains, for me, the brightest star of Britain’s glorious sporting summer.
TV moment of the Games? It has to be the interview with previously mild-mannered, even diffident British Finn class sailor Ben Ainslie. Aiming for his fourth Olympic Gold he lost to his Danish rival, Jonas Hagh-Christensen in the first six (of ten) races. In that sixth race the Dane, along with Dutchman, Pieter-Jan Postma, alleged that Ainslie had hit a mark whilst turning round it, thereby incurring a penalty. Ainslie felt obliged to repeat the manoeuvre, causing him to lose vaulable time, though he was unconvinced that he had committed the offense.
When interviewed about this afterwards, a clearly incensed Ainslie stated that he was “seriously unhappy” about this and that “they’ve made a big mistake, they’ve made me angry and you don’t want to make me angry”. I felt afeard even from the other side of the television screen. It reminded me of John McEnroe in his pomp when his public outbursts appeared to drive him to perform still better. Needless to say, Ainslie collected his fourth gold and the reward of carrying the GB flag at the Closing Ceremony.
One other hero – London.
Never was Samuel Johnson’s famous phrase that “when a man (or woman) is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford” more apt. All that life could afford was present in this past fortnight.
Lord Coe recounted at the post-Games press conference that Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, had advised him that if he exploited just 10% of London’s heritage in designing the venues, it would be spectacular. And spectacular it was.
I now offer a public apology to whoever took the decision to block off from the public a large chunk of Greenwich Park a year ago in order to prepare the site for the equestrian events. It was worth it. The most dramatic blend of action and backdrop was the sight of the show jumpers negotiating the “Moon” fence with the spendour of Greenwich’s maritime buildings in the immediate foreground and Canary Wharf and adjoining buildings in the background. Pure genius.
Only this could have beaten the volleyball arena in Horse Guard’s Parade, with the Whitehall rooftops and the London Eye enjoying birds eye views of the scantily attired athletes, into the silver medal position.
If there is a single word that defined these Games, and which my personal roll of honour above exemplifies, it is diversity or, if you prefer, inclusivity.
Tory MP Adam Burley called the opening ceremony “leftie multi-cultural crap”. As novelist Tony Parsons put it, “this was a rotten fortnight to be a bigot” as British athletes of black, white and mixed ethnic origin, of different religions, and from every corner of the nation, won medals. Burley’s angst will be intensified still further when the disabled Olympians take to the stage later this month.
I wrote this piece, not only as a counterpoint to the two articles published on the eve of the Games, but to provide some measure of catharsis or, in the modern vernacular, closure. But as I surround myself with commemorative brochures and newspaper reviews and look forward to the DVDs to come, I don’t want it to end, though I know it must.
The sceptic in me has re-entered the room, bragging that the spirit of generosity and celebration so overflowing in the past fortnight will soon be swept aside in arguments between politicians about the funding of sport in schools, surliness between strangers on the creaking tube, rail and bus network and a return to the national pastime of moaning.
Well, maybe, but we will always have London 2012.
I had intended to write also about that all-important issue of legacy, but I will leave it to others better qualified. Besides, I think I have occupied your time long enough.
All I will say is that I pray that these Games form not only the trigger to greater participation in the unifying and health-giving pursuit of sport in schools, clubs and throughout society (sustaining GB’s success in future Games), but that they act as a springboard to delivering the much-needed regeneration of eastern London that has been so trumpeted by politicians and adminstrators.
The true success of the Games, and its implications for the future of Britain, will be determined over a much longer timescale than a fortnight. And we face harsh economic times that might quickly remove the shine on those glorious medals.
But I will never forget the spectacle and the atmosphere, the way London 2012 made me feel good about my country, my fellow citizens, those inspirational athletes and the city I have lived and worked in for much of my life. Nothing will change that.
And let’s not forget – the Paralympics are returning home on 29th August and they are already scheduled to be the best supported in history. And I have two of the 600,000 tickets alone that have been purchased since the Opening Ceremony, enabling me to sample that extraordinary atmosphere in the Olympic Stadium!
Let’s replicate that feel-good atmosphere and celebrate a movement that, perhaps more than its big brother, exemplifies the Olympic ideals.
And finally, I’ll return to my previous article entitled Let the Games Begin when I concluded by stating that I would be “sparing a thought too for the friends and families of those who perished on 7 July 2005”.
I’d like now to finish with a quote from Dr Ian Harte who treated victims of the bombings that day:
I saw the worst of mankind that morning, and now I’m into this and I’ve seen the best.