Updated: May 10, 2020
We’re in the just before period now. The Olympics starts in just under a fortnight and I’m sure I’m not the only one with mixed feelings. We should be looking forward enthusiastically to a feast of inspirational sporting achievement. There will be plenty of that, but at the moment there’s another side to the Games, a side we may be overly aware of because of our host nation proximity.
We’ve seen so much of the sad reality of the modern Olympic movement as a bloated monster. It demands deference, tax haven status, special lanes to beat the traffic, shiny new stadiums and facilities where perhaps existing ones would do, and it signs up to deals with stupid and greedy multinational brands whose oft-voiced commitment to the free market ends as soon as other brands try to play in the market. The brand policing is arguably the thing that illustrates the stupidity and greed the most – all that effort put into ensuring we don’t call it the 02 Arena or serve the wrong sort of chips. Olympic spirit it ain’t.
If you’ve been lucky enough to get tickets, the instructions that come alongside hardly shout “Welcome aboard”. Get there early, prepare for more security checks than you ever dreamed of, don’t do this, do that – and by the way, don’t even think about bringing a bottle of water with you. I’m sure there’s some overblown terrorist threat reason for that instruction and that it’s got absolutely nothing to do with fleecing a captive market for overpriced refreshments from the official sponsors. Really. I can understand the need for security, but all the fuss being made about this would make you think we don’t stage major sporting events most weekends in this country.
And then there’s the extra layer for Londoners. Telling us to vary our travel plans and avoid certain areas and generally treating those of us who live and work here as a real inconvenience. I’ve almost been moved to apologise to the Olympic movement for the fact that I need to exist at the same time as the Games.
It’s hard not to thoroughly dislike the thoroughly dislikable organisations and principles surrounding the whole circus. Which is why it’s important to remember that all that stuff is just the wrapping. The essence of the Games is the sport, and the real victory for the forces of greed, arrogance and sheer stupidity will only come if we allow the wrapping to obscure what’s inside.
It took my kids to remind me of this. They are hugely, burstingly excited by the fact the the Olympics, THE OLYMPICS, is going to be happening on their doorstep in less than a fortnight. They’ve talked about little else for months, they’ve looked up Olympic history and watched Olympic specials and taken part in lessons and put on school plays. All about the real Olympic values – faster higher, stronger; achievement and excellence and bravery. They’ll be talking about those things long after they’ve forgotten the stupid, greedy sponsors and their vacuous products.
My initial cynicism about the Games was largely dissipated by Matt and Martin Rogan’s excellent book, Britain and the Olympic Games. It told the story of how Britain, and London, played a pivotal part in the making of the modern Olympics. The story of the 1948 Games is an extraordinary and inspiring one, and that chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But there’s also much about the development of the Paralympic movement and why it is so important that the 2012 Games is taking a huge step towards a combined event.
We won’t know how successful the Games are for years. We’ll know by September whether the Olympics and Paralympics have been staged well or not, we’ll make the judgements on the opening and closing ceremonies and how we all coped and what the races were like and how the highlights measured up to other Games. All that’s important, but it’s really just about the event and the ambitions of the people associated with it. The real success will only be measured in years to come when we see what that much-sed word legacy really amounts to.
We already know that a large part of east London that stood on ground that would never otherwise have been decontaminated has been cleaned up, but it’ll take time to judge exactly who has benefitted the most. And, despite all the enthusiasm in the schools, it’s going to be some time before we see if the ambition of using the Games to get more people playing sport will be realised. Dealing with the sheer vandalism of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attack on school sport does not provide solid ground.
So, there are still challenges ahead, and still lives to be lived long after the Olympic circus leaves town. Once this ‘just before period’ of waiting is over, we can focus on the main event. And hopefully it is what we see here that will stay with us, reminding us that the Games are at their best when they showcase the best of humanity.