Today, I was stopped and asked directions to Leicester Square by an American visitor outside of Tesco’s in Covent Garden. He turned to go, and then turned back around and held his hand up to me: “High Five!” I high-fived him and then he said “Go Team GB!” as he went on his merry way.
There was a sort of sweet irony in this: as an Irish-American descended from deported Fenians on one side and fugitives from Russia on the other, rooting for Team GB wasn’t exactly in my DNA. That is, up to two weeks ago.
I was one of the few people of my acquaintance that was quietly enthusiastic about the Games. There wasn’t really a downside as far as I was concerned: I’d seen my area of London regenerated, we’d gotten a new transport system, and altogether there was a great buzz about the place over the last twelve months. I also knew some people involved in the Opening Ceremony, and sensed that it would be something different and raw and amazing which it was.
But what has surprised me most of all is how into the sport I became over the last two weeks. It started with the women’s road cycling a couple of weekends ago. I purposefully hadn’t booked any tickets as (a) it was really difficult to get them and (b) it wasn’t something I was keen on spending money on. So I decided to go to a few of the free events. I was so bowled over by the atmosphere at the women’s road cycling that I started watching bits of events on the TV – anything from handball to Greco-Roman wrestling to women’s soccer, to even one weekend morning, the ladies’ triathlon. Every time Team GB won, I was as pleased as punch. Because all that winning translated into happy faces passing by, people chatting on the trains, the surfacing of Team GB paraphernalia in a “we are supporting our team way” rather than “we are obnoxiously nationalistic”.
It has been something rather miraculous to see this. One of my big criticisms of British society over 14 years of living here is that often, to the outside eye, there lacks an identity. Or at least, a sense of positive identity. That is understandable. All too often, because of her predominance as a colonial power, history and London’s multicultural society seemed to be sometimes uneasy bedfellows. What was so positive about these Games for Britain was the embracing of identity: British Muslims, British Sikhs, British Caribbean, British African, British Irish, British English – all standing side by side together, waving their flags, embracing their Olympic hopefuls from all backgrounds, all walks of society. That didn’t mean a separatism came into place, for example us vs the rest of the world: but what was amazing and beautiful at the events I went to see is that the British supporters applauded everyone. At the race-walking event that I went to last week (I did say I’d got addicted – I needed my fix) the commentator asked that everyone stay to support the competitors till the end and cheer them on – and everyone did. People actively supported Pierre de Coubertin’s ideal: The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well.”
Besides that, what I loved about these Games is that there were stories there to inspire everyone. Think women aren’t competitive and combatative? Look at Nicola Adams, who won gold and who dreamed of being an Olympic boxer since she was 12 – when women’s boxing didn’t exist. Look at Katie Taylor of Ireland, the greatest female boxer in the world, who campaigned quietly but persistently for female boxing to be allowed in 2012. Think you can’t compete past a certain age? Look at Nick Skelton and Peter Charles, show jumping gold medalists in their fifties; or Hiroshi Hoketsu, who has been competing in the Olympics since the 1960s and came to compete in London at the ripe old age of 71. Think you can’t overcome physically? Look at Oscar Pistorius, the first Olympian to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Thinking of quitting? Look at Victoria Pendleton, who a few years back almost quit her sport but ended up taking gold at these Games. The human stories of strife and endeavour, the sacrifices that had been made to get to the Games, touched Londoners so much that they came out and stayed out en masse to support athletes from all countries, not just their own. As a performer, these stories resonated with me, because all of performances is ephemeral and as much a game of mentality as physical prowess, to varying degrees.
The tone was set, I believe, in Danny Boyle’s incredible opening ceremony. Rather than being about pomp and pageantry, he focussed on the human stories that had made Britain great. The physical legacy of this Games is yet to be decided, and only time will tell whether it has been successful. There are so many strands to the emotional legacy, however, and I do believe, from what I have seen over the last two weeks, that hosting this Olympics has made Britons separate that which is of value and meaningful from that which is not. One of the most interesting strands of this is the discussion of how female athletes may replace reality TV stars as role models. Though I doubt that will happen exclusively, what is encouraging is that now young girls have a chance not to measure their bodies against the pneumatic vajazzled specimens from TOWIE or Page 3; but against the likes of Jessica Ennis, Laura Trott and Victoria Pendleton. The success of women in these games, and the inclusion of women from all countries may very well cause women to be more active, rather than passive, in their own lives; and the excitement generated from seeing women competing will hopefully cause more funding to be poured into that arena. Similarly, for boys seeing participants like Louis Smith or Mo Farah, or indeed, the great Usain competing, might cause them to explore sports that they may have otherwise overlooked. For visitors to Great Britain, rather seeing than a London overcome by terrorist bombings or riots, they have experienced through the thousands of Games-maker volunteers and Londoners themselves a vibrant, tolerant, multicultural welcoming city. Someone described London during these Games as “the street corner of the world” because of the integrated variety of nationalities here, and I do believe that is the case.
This Games has also been an inspiration for young people as well. Two of my own students were involved directly in the Games; one as a torch-bearer, the other in the Opening Ceremony. They are 17 and 19 respectively, and their excitement was palpable at the thought of being part of it all. Understandably so. And as I walked through London over the last few weeks, I heard more than once children and young people telling their parents and peers that these had been the best days of their lives. In these days, where we think that what young people need is the latest iPad, iPod, X-box, Nintendo etc, what they actually need is hope. Inspiration. A goal. Something to work towards. Achievement. Healthy competition.
It also struck me that our culture – reality TV, the Gordon Gekko mentality of dog-eat-dog – has had a lot to answer for in terms of giving competition a bad name. Of course, people getting on amicably with each other doesn’t make for good drama. But we’ve become inured over the last 10 years to people behaving badly, and getting rewarded for it. It was so lovely over the last fortnight to see human beings compete against each other, and when things didn’t go their way, being gracious in defeat. It didn’t make them a loser; it made them a competitor, a worthy combatant. It’s a semantic difference that translates well into our own everyday lives.
Prior to meeting my high-fiving American citizen of the world, I had visited the Olympic exhibition at the Royal Opera House. It was fascinating to follow the history of the Games from ancient Greece to the present day, and to see the artefacts of Olympians of days gone by. The one that struck me most however, was the story of Jesse Owens and Luz Long. In defiance of what was approved by Hitler, Long befriended Owens at the 1936 Games. Later on, when he was drafted into the German army and just before he was killed in action, he wrote to Owens: “Someday find my son … tell him about how things can be between men on this Earth.”
It is this spirit of the commonality of human experience, what unites us rather than divides us that was the strongest suit of these Games. London is a city of villages; and there was a rather “welcome to our village” mentality in the interaction between those of us that live here, and those that were passing through. Again, it is something that Danny Boyle hit on in the opening ceremony, when he featured Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the little-known scientist who created the global village via his invention of the internet. Through the internet, someone protesting in Egypt is almost as accessible in a virtual sense as if they were in Ealing. It makes citizens of the world of us all, and was a clever touch amongst many in imbuing a sense, from the outset, that we were all part of something, from Delhi to Dulwich. As he promised, this was indeed for everyone. And if you happen to be reading this, this is for you.