Archive

Olympics

The Summer Olympics are over. Two weeks of magical make-believe has been dispelled by the ordinariness of a Monday morning. It always had to come to an end. There started to grow a sense of it, on Thursday I think. The commentators started to sound a little different as the final weekend neared, and then all of sudden tomorrow was the final day, that final day was here, and now it is yesterday. Endings are good things as well as (often) sad things. Without things ended, they would have no shape. Life is meaningful because of death. The Olympics only make sense because they are limited in time.

For that limited time we were able to forget some of the realities of the world in which we currently live. We celebrated, cheered, roared, as a nation – as a great gathering of people from all corners of this earth. A golden glamour was spun over us, and it was glorious, but now it is gone.

These are troubled times. The UK has serious economic challenges in its future. Those difficulties are not going to be made any easier by the increasing dysfunction in the coalition government – a form of government quite un-natural to the political culture of this country, alien even to those who profess policies that make them more likely in our future. Indeed, the future of our country is somewhat in doubt, given the forthcoming referendum in Scotland about independence. All this though is minor in comparison to the unfolding drama across the Channel that takes place in Paris and Berlin, Madrid and Rome, Brussels and Athens, and all the other places involved in the ongoing eurozone crisis. It is trite to say the next few months are crucial, especially given how often that has been said of late and yet still the tale unfolds, but they are. One gets a sense that, slowly, things are moving to a point of decision about the future of the eurozone and the EU as a whole. However, just at this time, the great power of the West – the United States – is withdrawing into itself in its four-year electoral civil war. Whatever happens on this side of the Atlantic will only be seen through the political prisms of the actors and commentators, who will be more interested in their own agendas and elections that actually trying to assist other nations navigate whatever treacherous waters they face. Do not look to the East for aid either, for China is also pre-occupied with its own handover of power from the old generation to the new.

Not that most people think much about all of this on this level – it is un-necessary. However, most people I think have a sense of this larger picture, on some level, even if they are unable to articulate it. This summer with the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee we have been granted some marvellous opportunities to celebrate and ignore these lurking clouds about which we can, individually, do nothing but get our heads down. In more ways that one, this is a very British summer.

As I watched the Closing Ceremony last night I became acutely aware of all of this, and it kept me awake for hours after the party ended.

As someone fascinated by history I love reading about what is going in. Intellectually it is fascinating. Personally however I look at my daughter and naturally worry about the future into which she will grow up.

We live in interesting times.

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I watched an Olympic event in person. No television required.

More than a year ago, actually before our wedding, my wife and I were fortunate enough to get tickets for one Olympic event. However, how to best ensure we actually got the tickets. We, along with everyone else, knew that plenty of the events were going to be ridiculously oversubscribed. We also knew we were only going to be able to afford cheaper tickets. Well, while there were certain events I was not interested in (football for example) my wife has a long-standing interest in the equestrian disciplines. We looked at what was on offer and decided the discipline with least interest was likely to be the specialist dressage, in the first grand prix. We applied, and last May (iirc) forty pounds was withdrawn from my account for our two tickets. Two tickets which we used yesterday.

Of course, when we applied for those tickets we did not really expect to have a seven and a half week old baby just now. Fortunately family (in the form of my mother) and long-standing family friends (in the form of the wonderful lady who made our wedding cake, who fortuitously lives on the outskirts of London) offered to help take care of Melian from the friend’s house. That being only an hour or so outside of central London it would not put us too far away from Melian (if we had to leave Melian here in Somerset, we would not have gone).

Firstly, I have to praise the volunteer staff. They were, without exception, excellent. Not only excellent, they were also ubiquitous. They were friendly, welcoming and full of good cheer. Getting to Greenwich Park is not in and of itself terribly easy – there is basically no underground coverage there. Rather we went into London to Waterloo Station, went from there to Blackheath Station, and then walked 20 minutes or so to the entrance of the Olympic Grounds. The signage pointing the way was excellent. As my wife said, really, if you managed to get lost really it was your own fault. The volunteers were everywhere. Our fellow spectators also were all full of good humour and excitement. The security checkpoint was manned by some of the soldiers drafted in to cover for G4S. They were highly professional, and the entire security checkpoint was smooth and painless. I made a point of saying thank you to the guy who checked us through for standing in. He smiled.

We then had a further lengthy walk to the actual venue itself, seeing parts of the eventing cross-country course which were in the process of being dismantled so part of the park can be returned to public use. We got the venue and filled up our water bottles (one was not allowed to carry water in, but could take in empty bottles which could be filled up for free). Then we climbed up to our seats. Remember, we go the cheapest tickets. We were on level 38 – which was a very long way up. Our legs were a little tired by the time we got there, but once we got there and sat down, this is what we saw.

This was just after the tournament started, and the empty seats would basically fill up over the course of the next hour. It was rather windy up there too, but the view was fantastic.

I admit I do not really know all that much about dressage – just enough to know what is going on but not much more. Before the tournament began they showed a video explaining some of the more complicated dressage moves though for people like me or with even less knowledge. We left at the end of the second session – because we were starting to really miss our little baby girl – but in that time we had seen some wonderful horses and riders.

We saw a British rider perform absolutely splendidly. When his horse went into an extended trot, it was like watching silk on wind. It was the equine equivalent of some wonderful Shakespearean lines. We also saw a Moroccon rider – the first African ever to qualify apparently for specialist dressage (and when the announcer mentioned that at the end of his run, the crowed cheered even more to congratulation him). The last rider was saw was from Japan. It was the fourth Olympics he appeared in. The first was in Tokyo in 1964. Think on it, competing in the Olympics when one is 71!

If we did not want to go back to Melian, we would have happily stayed and enjoyed ourselves just as thoroughly in the second half I am sure. As it was we started our long walk back … and about ten minutes in it started to rain. At first it appeared to be a shower or two. We  were soon disabused of this notion. About fifteen or twenty minutes later, when we were nearly at the railway station, I mustered all the British understatement I could muster and said to my wife “I think we are a little damp.” Those of you who know us in this island will have some idea of how wet we were 🙂 . The volunteers on the route back – getting wet themselves – laughed and joked with us. Again, they deserve the highest praise for their fun and dedication.

Then we went home, having achieved a lifetime ambition to go to an actual Olympic event.

One of the great things about the Olympics is the sheer variety of different sports on offer, virtually every sort of sport to whet the competitive appetite of any palette. One of the great annoyances of the Olympics are all these great sports being shown at the same time. Not that this dilemma is one the organisers can avoid however.

I rather like this panoply of sport set before us, for us to feast upon. To be sure, there will be many who prefer one or two disciplines to the exclusion of others, and that is absolutely fine and well. There is no “correct” way to watch the Olympics after all. For our part though we have so far managed to switch between channels to get a taste of many varieties of spectacle.

In the last two days we have watched a fair amount of archery, swimming, and equestrian (eventing – dressage stage). We have also watched some tennis, and water polo and badminton; a match of handball and table-tennis; a few runs of canoe slalom and a session each of male and female artistic gymnastics (both male and female); even a brief foray into female weightlifting and male judo – oh, and I almost forgot, a couple of matches of fencing – and several races in sailing.

We are, of course, rooting both the British and Danish squads in this household. It provides extra opportunities for interest, along with occasionally some good-natured rivalry.

Oh, I forgot, we’ve seen some rowing too.

Just the sheer scope and variety of the Olympics never ceases to amaze, and I am glad to report we are making the most of the opportunities here.

I am watching the Opening Ceremony. I may or may not have more to say on that another time, but just now the athletes are marching out.

They march out, some in their hundreds, others in just a handful. Three or four marched as independents, one of whom hails from this world’s newest country of South Sudan (which is so new it hasn’t organised an Olympic Committee yet). They march out, many different and differing faces, the whole range of humanity. They come from the farthest north, they come from the utter south. They come from the largest and most settled nations on earth, and yet even the smallest and most troubled also send their sons and daughters. The walk and form a human current, a human stream of the great human sea.

It is marvellous to see.

When you watch the nations march, you get a sense of just how large this world is, just how varied our we who inhabit it.

On just about every face there is a wide smile – though some of the flag-bearers appear to be understandably nervous. One can nevertheless feel the joy through a television screen, the energy is infectious.

I started typing this when Portugal entered the area, South Africa just has been announced, and still they come. What a glorious world we live in.

Tomorrow is the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. The first sporting events have actually taken place (football matches). There has been, in the media (and especially I think in the newspapers) a certain amount of grouching about this upcoming extravaganza. I can only think that the chattering classes are trying to do all they can to stop us enjoying this great event, that is unlikely to come again to this country in my lifetime. Fortunately most folks I speak to, be they great sports enthusiasts or not, seem to be wanting to enjoy the next few weeks in various and varying ways. No moaning there!

It is difficult though to think of the Olympics in London without thinking of the events that took place seven years ago. On July 6th it was announced that London had won the right to host the 2012 Olympics. I do not think it is rose-tinted spectacles and errant memory when I say I remember alot of people, inside and outside of London, myself included, found this is a reason to celebrate.

The next day fifty-two innocent people in London lost their lives in four separate explosions, at the hands of four suicide bombers.

The aims of the bombers were not connected with the Olympics, but in my mind ever since the 2012 Olympics have been irrevocably linked to the actions for those four young men on July 7th, 2005.

The Olympic ideal is easy to scoff at. It is easy to say that the Games have fallen prey to geopolitical strife more than once. The events in Munich in 1972 are still an uncomfortable heritage which I do not think the IOC fully realises, for reasons I do not know. Likewise it is easy to find fault with the “business” side of the games, the commercial sponsorships and the like. In the same vein there is the ever-present doubt it today’s champion but turn out to achieved greatness through illegal means.

I actually agree somewhat with each of those concerns, but ultimately, the Olympic ideal remains. It is an ideal, to be aimed for, and like all ideals is not necessarily achievable, humans being what we are. Paraphrasing G K Chesterton, the Olympic has not been achieved and found wanting, it has been found difficult and thus disparaged.

The Olympics are meant to be a time of coming-together. A time to set aside old and current scores. A time to celebrate humanity’s achievements, and to make allowance for our flaws. At times the Olympics has been bedevilled by geopolitics, and yet, I wonder … perhaps some of the great US/USSR clashes, Cold War by proxy, actually acted as a safety valve, allowing an expression of jingoism and competition in a safe place, while cooler heads could prevail in the realms of armies, navies, and air forces. As Churchill once said, “Jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war.”

When I watch the Opening Ceremony tomorrow, I will marvel that so many disparate nations, nations that even today are very unfriendly, are gathering peacefully in one place for something as beautifully mundane and glorious as sport. When I travel to London next Thursday to actually attend an Olympic event, I will get a feeling I always get when visiting London of a global metropolis, yet British city, vibrant and resilient.

I remember a cartoon from 2005. A spectral Hitler was saying to bin-Laden something along the lines of “Don’t bomb Londoners. It doesn’t work. I tried.”

So often nations only seem to gather together in death. Sometimes this is at funerals of the great – just think of the international nature of the funeral of Pope John Paul II the Great. Other times it is of tragedy. A vast number of countries, and people within those countries, in this world have expressed sympathy with the victims of the murderer at the screening of a batman film in the US. I remember, in 2005, at baseball’s All-Star Game the bands played “God Save the Queen”. I watched it and cried. I just found it a shame so few of my countrymen probably realised how, at a very time and place, America mourned with us as we had mourned with them four years previously.

Tomorrow, the world will be gathered for reasons other than death. It is something to celebrate. I intend to do so.