I have to confess, I was an Olympic 2012 cynic. Not from a sporting viewpoint as I’ve always loved live sport, but from a corporate standpoint. I had my fingers badly burned in the ticket lottery last year. I banked our family summer holiday on the Olympics, committing over £2,500 in ticket applications from opening ceremonies, gymnastics, rowing, swimming, equestrian, football through to the closing ceremony. All I got was football at Coventry. At first I put this down to bad luck but soon realised an awful lot of people who lived in North Buckinghamshire seemed to get tickets for non GB football at Coventry. Hmmm.
And then of course there was all the furore leading up to the events about empty seats, about corporate greed, and I became a real cycnic, so much so that we booked a week in the sun that overlapped the opening ceremony of the Olympics and I didn’t really care. Quite glad to be out of there, I thought.
Fortunately, our villa in Spain had a TV, and fortunately, we tuned in to watch the opening ceremony. I was hooked. It was beautifully done, a very British affair, with real humour, humility, style and pomp which we seem to do as a nation really, really well.
And the following day as we arrived home, the games started for real. Rowing at Eton Dorney. Eton where? Cycling through the streets of London out into the suburbs of Surrey and beyond. Swimming, lots of swimming, and everywhere you turned there were crowds, huge crowds. Gymnastics, beach volleyball in the West End! The BBC TV transmissions were superb, every sport accessible live through multiple digital streams, excellent commentary, and those fans!
The first few days didn’t see too many medals for Team GB but that all changed midweek when the rowing finals started at Eton Dorney (ah yes, Eton Dorney, familiar by now), and the cycling began at the velodrome, and then on the Friday the athletics opened in the main stadium and Bang!, on your marks, get set, Go!
Gold medals seemed to be raining down on the home nations. By the weekend we were third in the table which is amazing when you think about it. Yes we are a fortunately wealthy nation who can invest in such non essential luxuries, but 21st in the world population wise, and we are third behind China and USA. Quite unbelievable. The country was going wild, but what was becoming interesting was that it wasn’t about the medals, it was all about the people, the individual athletes and their back stories.
I have been reduced to tears on several occasions over the last few days, seeing individuals who have sacrificed so much, people with such unrelenting dedication it makes you feel very humble indeed. These weren’t famous people. The majority of the people were unknown, they were running amongst us last year, 2 years ago, 3 years ago. People who have been working a lifetime for this event. People who sacrificed hedonism, not just for a weekend, but for a decade or more. People who got up at 4am, day after day after day to train. People with part-time jobs. People who had to fundraise to get the money together for a second hand car to take them to the training ground.
People doing sports I know little of, participating in categories I barely recognise – Kirin, double sculls, repecharge, peloton, skeet, double trap – terms that come round every 4 years to most of us, but which are part of daily life for others.
To take just one example, I was utterly engaged and fascinated by the mens double trap – clay pigeon shooting to you and me. The pressure on those guys to hit those discs in less than 0.25 secs, time after time, the amazing talent required, the hours and days and months and years of dedication and training. And then the ultimate pressure is mind boggling. Imagine training for four years for an event, sacrificing so much, to find yourself in the final, to find yourself one shot away away from Gold, as did Peter Wilson. Imagine lifting that rifle, preparing to shoot for the release of the discs that would change your future from hereonin. Unbelievable. And the release of pressure afterwards is the end of four years of hard work, or in some cases over a decade of hard work. An easy sentence to write but just imagine that. We could all run our socks off on that Olympic track in London 2012, but how many of us could get up on Christmas day at 4am to go swimming, or go for a run? How many of us could do that day after day after day, foregoing parties, take-aways, booze and all the other temptations to which most of us succumb?
The tears and emotion are because there are no people more deserving than Olympians. The tip of the iceberg is August 2012, that’s what we get to see, but when we then hear the back stories, so excellently pieced together by the BBC, we see the other 99% of the iceberg and it’s that which makes us cry, because we see the true, naked human spirit in all its glory, and it’s just beautiful.
We see sporting excellence every week, but often its ugly. Premiership football is the best and worst example. Undoubtedly these footballers have innate and profound talent, but its innately unpleasant. People who have been force fed money and wealth all their adult lives, people who abuse their position, who get drunk and smash up bars, who rape, cheat, abuse, bully.
Alan Campbell, who won bronze in the single sculls rowing, was pushing tractor tyres up a muddy hill in Coleraine on Boxing Day. No-one outside of the sport knew of him. He wasn’t earning vast amounts of money for pushing those tyres up that hill, in fact it was probably costing him money. Contrast that with the Premiership teams playing football on Boxing Day, driven to the stadium in coaches, listening to ‘drum n bass’ on their Dr Dre Beats headsets as they exit the coach flanked by security gurads as they are whisked into the changing rooms. Players who refuse to come off the bench as a sub because they are sulking as they didn’t get to start the game.
Don’t get me wrong, there are superstar athletes in Team GB too, and there are no better examples of this than Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah. Perhaps not as wealthy as the footballers, but almost as famous. Yet what a contrast. Jessica Ennis is beautiful, and I don’t just mean physically (although she is that too), but she has such charm, such grace. She makes time for people, she is modest, self effacing, totally charming but also passionate and successful. It can be done. Mo Farah is no different, a beautiful man. The image of Mo repeatedly slapping his head after winning the 10km last night is so humbling. He couldn’t believe it, and there it was for all the world to see in all it’s raw glory. Contrast that to Maradonna smacked off his tits on coke screaming into the camera after scoring in the World Cup, overweight and bloated on drugs. Or Joey Barton kicking a player to the ground and swinging out with his fists after receiving yet another red card for physical abuse.
I didn’t want this to be an indictment of football, but it helps provide a contrast to all that’s wonderful about the Olympics. I’m a real convert from the cynic I was two weeks ago. My corporate cynicism still exists but has been swamped by the emotion of the games and most importantly the athletes that make it all happen. And of course its not just Team GB as there are beautiful examples everywhere you turn, from Michael Phelps superhuman achievements, to Usain Bolt, to the new generation of athletes coming along like Missy Franklin.
But I don’t think I have ever seen my nation get together like this, certainly helped by the fact we are Team GB, not individual countries, but it’s really underpinned by the fact that we are watching the human spirit in its most beautiful form. We can all relate to these people in ways we will never be able to relate to Wayne Rooney.
I would give anything to be competing in London 2012, or any other Olympics for that matter. Ever since I was a child I have had a dream, always of me entering the stadium at the end of the marathon, in second place, the roar of the crowd as I entered the stadium making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I closed in on the leader, overtaking him in the home straight to win gold.
I still have that dream now, 40 years on. It will never happen, it can never happen, It never happened. That makes me a little bit sad. But then I look at the other qualities people like Mo Farah, Peter Wilson, Becky Adlington, Missy Franklin, Chris Hoy, Michael Phelps, Vicky Pendleton and Jess Ennis have – humility, passion, respect, dedication, commitment, all qualities which don’t have to be just consigned to the sports field. They can apply in equal measure to all of us, in any, and every, walk of life.
The Olympics are beautiful. I contend there is no other event on the planet that comes close to showing all of us how life should be lived. It’s surely the greatest spectacle ever. And if we can all take something from watching these heroes, it should be that we can all become slightly better citizens of this planet. We can all watch and learn from what’s happening here. Because it’s all just so fucking beautiful.