Sunday 12 August 2012

The Olympics: or Why I Was Wrong

I was probably as cynical as anyone in the run-up to the Olympics. I thought it was going to be a disaster, and on some levels kind of almost hoped that it was.

But the last few weeks have been entertaining, inspiring and generally pretty amazing. As well as being happy that London 2012 has gone well, I've actually realised what makes the Olympics such a fantastic and important thing.

For those of you who already know, you don't need me to explain it to you. But it's not true that for those who don't, no explanation will be enough. Because I didn't know. I didn't get it. But I do now.

Every day, and pretty much on an hourly basis, people who had travelled around the world achieved their life's ambitions.

Somehow, I didn't quite get that before. I somewhat wrote it off as "just sport". Possibly because I'm about the least sporty person I know. Possibly because, at school, sport represented something I was never going to be good at, and never going to be accepted at.  Possibly because it was something I always associated with negativity. But whatever it was, I was wrong.

The opening ceremony helped. It was such an astonishing spectacle of positivity and multiculturalism (which helpfully annoyed all the right people). It was something people talked about and were generally rather wonderfully enthusiastic about. It was something which a lot of people had been dreading, but went beautifully.

Team GB have performed really well, and other than some tabloid whining when they weren't winning golds, it hasn't felt particularly jingoistic in the same way that it's felt like it did when football was on.

I was a British teenager living in Ireland when some of the English fans (who were linked with neo-Nazi group Combat 18) tore up sections of an Irish football stadium during a friendly match. It made me feel physically ill when it happened. That happened a year before Euro '96, and it meant that I saw a nasty edge to the Jingoism that took hold, culminating with headlines like "For You, Fritz, Ze European Cup Is Over".

That was difficult to let go of. It was difficult not to feel as my first reaction any time England or Britain were mentioned in conjunction with sports. It was difficult not to associate it with a sickening and undeserved sense of self-entitlement and xenophobia.

However, the Olympics, and Team GB's achievements, haven't reflected that. Instead, they've reflected a rather beautiful example of how much Britain has changed, and how much it has changed for the better. A multicultural, slightly bonkers, weird, wonderful and humourous country. I mean, the most popular man in the country right now is called Mohamed. That's just brilliant.

But it wasn't just Team GB. Watching athletes reacting to losing or winning was continually fascinating. Seeing people cry due to a combination of exhaustion and pride while listening to their national anthem being played was truly inspirational.

Wrongly, I tended to not think about sporting achievements in the same way as I thought about artistic or scientific achievement.

But we saw records being set. We saw people continually achieving at the very pinnacle of human physical ability. Work, dedication and passion. People showing what we can achieve when we put our minds and bodies to it.

That's what the Olympics are all about. The mental, brilliant opening ceremony was about that too. And the fact that we landed Curiosity on Mars seemed appropriate.

Because we're human beings, and we continue to achieve amazing, wonderful, beautiful things. Creatively, scientifically and physically. The Olympics are a showcase for part of that. And we do it because we can.

If I wished one thing about the Olympics, it's that they'd been better for local businesses. Because that was promised, and it doesn't feel like it happened. That's not quibbling either. But now's not the time for it. That's tomorrow's discusssion.

For now, well done to everyone involved with London 2012. The organisers, the athletes, the volunteers, and the utterly wonderful BBC for presenting it so well.

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