I’d imagine very few people in the UK are unaware that our capital has been playing host to the Olympic Games over the last two weeks. The newspapers, television and radio have been full of little else and it has proven to be a topic which can enliven even the most awkward lull in conversation. And now we have a brief lull before the Paralympics and…then what? Certainly the journalism industry is going to have to look a bit harder for news items to fill their pages and minutes, if nothing else.
I always rather enjoy the Olympics. I’m not much of a sports fan, but the coverage of a collection of very different sports, with the opportunity to watch just brief snippets of each is wonderful. And the idea of the world coming together for a fortnight of friendly(ish) competition is even better. There’s the joy of seeing countries you’ve barely heard of earn a medal or two, and the way in which the entire country can suddenly become experts on fencing, synchronised diving or the pole vault if it looks like a British athlete stands any chance in the sport du jour. Having it in my own nation adds a bit of patriotic pride and excitement to the mix, even though I didn’t even enter the ballot for tickets, let alone attend.
The whole thing got off to a simply stunning start, with an opening ceremony which showed off the things which this strange little country is so proud of and showed an amazing theatricality. I was in awe at the Pandemonium segment where chimneys rose from the stadium floor and the Olympic rings were forged in the sky, I grinned with delight when the Queen met James Bond, I felt inordinately proud of the NHS, our musical culture and the eclectic, multi-ethnic randomness of British society. I felt quite emotional watching it, and indeed shed a tear towards the end. The moment when it became clear that the cauldron would be lit not by a world-famous athlete, but by seven young people that most of us had never heard of made me glow with excitement – the symbolism of passing the torch on to the next generation and the thought of what those youngsters must have been feeling really struck me. But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty of those copper petals rising and coming together to form that beautiful cauldron. Simple, yet utterly beautiful. Add the fact that each petal was brought in by a different country, and I was gone. That moment exemplified what the Olympics should be for me.
Then the actual competition got underway. I saw bits of diving, gymnastics, handball, athletics, tennis, swimming, fencing, rowing, cycling, sailing, water polo and probably other sports which I’ve forgotten about. As each event continued, I was in awe of what these people could do. Even the last placed competitors were doing things which you wouldn’t think would be humanly possible – so fast, so high, so strong, not to mention so long, so graceful, so controlled, so coordinated and so on. Whether I enjoyed the sport or not, I found myself open-mouthed time after time. I also found myself shouting at the commentators and interviewers quite frequently. They often seemed distinctly disappointed if the British hopes got anything less than gold (for shame, they’re only the third best athlete in the world!), even if it was a surprise that said competitors even made it to the finals. And in one swimming relay, the commentator shouted “oh no!” – a team had won gold and broken the world record, but they still hadn’t gone quite as fast as he’d hoped. I’m sorry, but they’ve just swum faster than any other team in history, and you’re disappointed? Madness!
The things I’ve seen blew my mind. In the diving, I was impressed simply by the control in their handstands, let alone what twists and turns they went though on the way into the pool (where they somehow have to avoid splash). The table tennis moved too fast for me to follow. The long jump covered ludicrous distances, and the pole vault is mind-boggling. Men and women carrying on through serious pain, and everyone (apart from maybe a few badminton duos) giving their all even if they were so far behind the rest of the field. Concentration, determination and humility. And yes, some very large egos as well. The Paralympics will be just as awe-inspiring, I have no doubt.
The closing ceremony didn’t quite live up to the opening ceremony, partly because it didn’t seem to hang together as well. It did have some excellent moments to it, though, particularly the opening segment with the newspapers and street parties, and the inspired pairing of Jessie J with Queen. It did continue to prove the point that this country has produced some amazing music and musicians, though. Lord Coe’s speech was obviously quite emotional for him, and it would be hard to argue with his assertion that “we did it right”. While marvelling at the abilities of athletes from around the world, arguing the merits of various sports and enjoying the warm, fuzzy feeling which comes from the world coming together, the 2012 Olympics reminded me that this country (while far from perfect) is capable of being truly amazing.