LONDON—We need to talk about the weather. Summer arrived with unusual severity and is now the wettest on record. The utterly dismal weather has given us nothing but record rainfalls, scattered thundery showers, waterlogged and windy conditions, with flooding in places up and down the country.
We’ve had some brief sunny spells, but we’re not applying SPF 15 sunscreens in a hurry. In the Met’s typical circumlocution, the forecast for the first week of the Olympics is: “A prolonged spell of hot, sunny weather looks very unlikely.” But maybe God Himself wants to have the occasional fun, so the sun unexpectedly but sweetly came out, wearing a hat, in recent days.
Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered if we had a prelapsarian deluge. Sports and I never did get along. With two left hands and two right (flat) feet, I was always chronically late for PE, inventing increasingly ingenious excuses for missing games. After an hour-and-a-half of football, I look at my watch and realize that only 15 minutes had passed.
But, hey, the Olympics: the ultimate, biggest sporting event in the universe! Even I find it hard to be cynical or to ignore an extraordinary event that will give millions of people innocent pleasure, especially one that costs 9.3 billion pounds of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, mine included, to stage, in a time of existential, butt-clenching, heartbreaking austerity.
Every penny worth it
In London yet—the capital of cool, a magnet city for talent, diversity, cultural life, art and entertainment, and dizzying wealth. As if to convince ourselves that every penny spent on the Games is worth it, we say that the eyes of the world are on us (again!), and that it’s great for showcasing the best of Britain to the world—as if the world needed any more persuading (it doesn’t). As Max Hastings, one of our revered writers and irrepressible gadflies, wrote: “This country has (already) become a magnet for Muslim extremists, terrorists, Russian gangsters, benefit tourists, phoney spouses and make-believe students.”
The end of the world might well be nigh, but the London 2012 Olympic Games are here! For at least the last couple of years and rising to a crescendo in the past few months, we have endured overcrowding, road closures, crowd-control exercises, traffic gridlock, interminable delays at airports/railway stations/bus stops, kettling on the Underground, the drill, drone and din of turbo-charged Olympics-related activity.
And now have to put up with especially reserved Olympic-only “Zil lanes” on our roads—snarkily named after the limousines once favored by Soviet apparatchiks.
We are a people who like space and order, as George Mikes said: “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” Thrown ineluctably together in overcrowded trains and buses, in positions of intimate closeness that would make newlyweds blush, we find it trying to maintain civility and mental distances from our fellow passengers. With an additional million people using the transport system during the Games, it’s bound to get worse. Tempers are fraying; there have been scuffles and it’s hard to be rude in a polite way.
Many have already fled the country for quieter climes, but those of us who live and work in London are girding up for the crowds and chaos. But the 8,000-mile, 70-day Torch Relay wended its way down, from the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, to London, inciting feverish excitement, celebrations and civic pride among local communities along the way. And because our economy is still knackered, torches have instantly gone up for sale on eBay.
Airport-arrival halls are jam-packed, with long delays to negotiate passport control. Unable or unwilling to navigate crowds, congested roads, Tube and rail stations, hundreds of thousands of workers have been told by their employers to stagger their schedules or work from home—not that it will do the country’s productivity much good.
Police have warned that organized pickpockets, con artists and mafia gangs from Eastern Europe and South America are targeting the Olympics and preying on vulnerable tourists. Recently, arrests have been made on suspicion of terrorism offenses and an alleged plot to attack the Games. Army helicopters and rocket-propelled grenade launchers are strategically positioned in and around sites close to the Games. A military “ring of steel” is in place and surface-to-air missiles are stationed on roofs of residential tower blocks near the Olympic Park to provide a powerful deterrent to an airborne terrorist threat. Yes, we’ve had lots of practice in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I assure you it’s nowhere near like Helmand Province or Camp Bastien. Heightened security is an exigency we’re learning to live with. You’re safe.
Tickets; what tickets? Ten million had gone on sale. How many have actually sold seems to be anyone’s guess, but you can’t get tickets to some events (the very popular beach volleyball, for one) for love nor money. Meanwhile, tickets to the best seats at top events are changing hands for thousands of pounds on the black market. Amazingly, some officials of the International Olympic Committee have been implicated in ticket-touting. We’re not naïve. We know that some people are spivs and crooks; we just expect them to be honest, from time to time, in the interest of the greater good.
But where’s Beckham?
With David Beckham excluded from Team GB’s football squad, we’re already nursing a major disappointment. The former England captain, who played a not inconsiderable part in bringing the Olympics to London, was, he said, very disappointed. This was seen as Goldenballs’ fitting last shot at glory for his country. Even if he is now based—and lives—in Los Angeles.
The inconvenience is humongous and the expense, in a knackered economy, is brobdingnagian, so maybe there’s been some kvetching, moaning and whining. From their lofty perch, The New York Times has expatiated thus: “While the world’s athletes limber up, Londoners are practicing some of their own favorite sports: complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities…the low-grade grousing is as integral to the country’s character as its Eeyoreish attitude toward the weather.” Meh.
We put up with all of it, suck on a comforting, if nebulous, lozenge of promised Olympics legacy, and marvel at numbers and logistical challenges that will smack your gob. To wit: 15,000 athletes from 205 countries, competing for glory and honors at the Olympics (July 27-Aug. 12) and the Paralympics (Aug. 29-Sept. 9), using nearly one million items of sports equipment between them. The Games include athletics, basketball, beach volleyball, sailing, equestrian and water polo, to cite just a few of the 26 sports to be played out. The Paralympics, with amputee and visually impaired athletes, among others, competing across 20 sports, include wheelchair basketball and fencing. Just 302 gold medals are up for grabs. Because the organizers have thought of everything, 150,000 condoms (more where they came from) are being distributed to athletes.
Ten restaurants in the Olympic Park, offering a variety of dining experiences, are expected to go through 330 tons of fruits and vegetables; 232 tons of potatoes; 82 tons of seafood; 19 tons of eggs; 75,000 liters of milk. Hotdog: 5.90 pounds. A packet of crisps: 1.50 pounds. For those with more recherché tastes, the $12-million hospitality pavilion is available to premium-ticket holders (4,500 pounds per ticket) for champagne receptions and four-course enchiladas. The world’s biggest McDonald’s is in the Olympic Park, expecting to serve some two million customers over the period of the Games. Two thousand trees—poplar, cherry, willow—had been planted in and around the park, and because this is England, there are wildflower meadows, too.
None of this materialized overnight. London, with history on its side having hosted the 1908 and 1948 Games, won the bid to host the 2012 Games against Moscow, New York City, Madrid and Paris in 2005—three years before the world fell into a Stygian financial abyss. The organizing committee pledged a budget of 2.5 billion pounds—a budget that has since inflated nearly five times. If it had won, Madrid, a euro zone basket case, will probably have staged the most austere of Games. Meanwhile, Paris rubs its Gallic hands with schadenfreude, gleeful and cock-a-hoop it did not win.
Like Lazarus from the dead
The 200-hectare Olympic Park rose like Lazarus, from the detritus and dereliction of a former industrial site at Stratford, in the East End of London, an area once synonymous with inner city poverty, criminality and dystopian turmoil. The East End—dubbed the place of arrivals for the waves of migrants it embraced over the years—French Huguenots, Jews, Chinese, Somalis and Bangladeshis—is currently undergoing tremendous gentrification, becoming a shiny retail destination, an enclave for artists, home to trendy restaurants and coffee bars, and nearby Canary Wharf, the new financial temple at whose altar bankers worship. It is the home of the Olympic Village, housing 17,000 athletes and officials, a stadium, aquatic center, plaza and velodrome. What was once a heavily polluted dumping ground for all manner of waste has been turned into an urban green park, complete with woodland and wildlife.
I’m filing this copy before the opening ceremony on July 27. I hope you enjoyed and were swept along by the fantabulous show—even if maybe some of the nuances and vignettes were puzzling. It is in hearkening to the sounds of our “green and pleasant land” that inspired the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) to produce an opening ceremony set in an English rural idyll. What a climbdown from the razzle-dazzle and pyrotechnics in Beijing, you might say, even if we spent a staggering one-off 27 million pounds to stage it.
We’re not Chinese and we could (I hope) never conscionably fork out the $44 billion they spent in the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
Boyle, who said the “Isles of Wonder” soliloquy in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” inspired him, set out to “create a picture of ourselves as a nation; an island culture and an island climate. It’s a green and pleasant land because it’s something we’re proud of… I hope it reveals how peculiar we are, how contrary sometimes, but also there’s a warmth about us that surprise people and capture our humor.”
The middle of the stadium was transformed into rolling green fields in summer time, with flower-bedecked maypoles around which were dancers; farmyard animals—cows, goats, sheep, chickens—grazing; fluffy clouds bringing down a shower of—yet more—rain.
It was a pageant rich with political and historical nuances, with references to immigration, the Industrial Revolution, protest movements and Britain’s accomplishments and gifts to the world. If you were still wide awake after three hours of this, the extravaganza rocked, rocked and rocked you some more. Hey, this is Britain after all, and music is our middle name.
If, like me, athletic legends at the summit of their sporting excellence to which they have dedicated their entire lives leave you tepid and unmoved, come anyway, because you won’t want to miss the almighty cultural Olympiad London is laying on for visitors. Over 12,000 performances and events will be held, to give posterity delight, night and day, involving some 25,000 international artists and musicians. There will be dance festivals, exhibitions, theater, gigs and concerts, and a Parnassus of verse readings by poets from around the world.
“What does the world know about us?” asked Lord Coe, chairman of the organizing committee and himself a middle-distance runner who won four Olympic gold medals. “We’re actually quite good at partying. Let’s turn it into a giant party!” Needing no further encouragement to join in the giant schmoozathon, they’re all here: Michelle Obama, the Mitt Romneys, Brangelina, the glitterati and literati, several crowned heads, 120 heads of state, billionaires in their yachts and bling jets.
On the 9th of September, when the last of the Games will have been over, the buntings and banners come down and the big cleanup begins, we can start to reclaim our city, hoping to benefit from the tourism and retail dividend, the projected boost to our spavined economy and the thousands of jobs created in construction, tourism, retail, transport and hospitality.
Maybe the Olympic Games will leave a lasting legacy of regeneration for East End communities blighted by fear and poverty, and serve to inspire a generation to get off their pinguid backsides, to run, swim or kick a ball. Maybe it boosts business and consumer confidence; God knows the national mood needs lifting! Maybe it is, as The Times says, simply “a joyous affirmation that life is worth living.”
Be sure to pack wellies, a mac and brolly. I’m reliably told that God doesn’t take sides during the Games, so I hope Philippine athletes give their all and win their best. Let the Games begin; welcome to London and have the most wonderful time!
And to borrow the piquant words of Adlai Stevenson, when you leave here, please don’t forget why you came.
Motto of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics: Inspire a generation.
Caliban’s soliloquy from “The Tempest,” W. Shakespeare:
“Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.”
The five rings in the Olympics logo represent the five continents that come together to compete: Asia, Africa, Americas, Europe and Oceania.
The spirit of the Olympic Games was embodied in the sermon delivered at St. Paul’s Cathedral by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot to launch the 1908 London Games. He said: “The important thing about the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part. Just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.” This was adapted for the Olympics creed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and father of the modern Games.
Games highlights (and lows):
Berlin 1936: “Horst Wessel Lied,” the Nazi war song, was played more than 500 times during the Games. Athletes were instructed to shout Sieg Heil, and to salute Hitler when they passed him during the opening ceremony.
Munich 1972: Games were suspended following the execution of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.
Los Angeles 1984: The Games made a profit of $223 million, creating the commercial-sponsorship model for future Games.
Beijing 2008: Organizers spent $40 billion, the most expensive Games ever.
All-time sporting legends:
Usain Bolt (Jamaica) is the fastest man on earth. He ran the 200 m in Beijing in 19.30 seconds.
Michael Phelps (US) holds the record for the biggest haul of individual gold medals (9) for swimming.
Nadia Comaneci (Romania) was only 14 years old when she was declared the Perfect 10 gymnast.
Yoshinobu Miyake (Japan) is the greatest Asian weightlifter.