AND then it was all over. Seventeen days of competition, seventeen days in which the world marvelled at dedication and achievement, have come to an end; seventeen days in which a country, so comfortable with a default attitude of cynicism and discontent, figured out how to be happy, and how to be proud. I have no idea how the outside world has received London 2012, but to that world I say: these three weeks have transformed a nation ruing its own decline into a proud, defiant population of disparate, diverse cultures that knows it can punch above its weight. Thanks for giving us that opportunity.
As a nation we were never universally excited about hosting the Games. Up until the very start we picked holes and predicted gloom. I attended the rowing at Eton Dorney on day 1 and, despite the most efficient transport system and event management I have ever seen in this country, people around me were picking holes from the moment the gates opened: there were not enough food and drink outlets or enough bins; it was too far to walk and so on. All of this, in spite of where they were. I began to wish I was Australian, their default attitude summed up by a fan interviewed on Simon Mayo's drivetime show on BBC Radio 2 the previous evening, just prior to the opening ceremony: "I don't know what all the whining is about, it all seems pretty incredible to me," the wise Australian declared, without prompting.
But it didn't take long for the whining to stop. The Opening Ceremony showed the world what this nation is: a hodgepodge of cultures and nationalities united by a history of progress and revolution, of social mobility and pioneering enterprise. Suddenly the nation had found what it had been looking for for so long: a modern definition of itself. With that established, it was time to cheer. And then Team GB won their very first race on the rowing lake.
Surrounded predominantly by Kiwis and Aussies, we cheered our team home. We cheered the Australians, Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, Germans, Dutch, Argentinians, Croatians, Kazakhstanis, Azeris, Cubans, Italians and all the other nationalities competing too. And we stood up, cheering as loud as we could, as Djibo Issaka from the impoverished Niger, who had taken up rowing only three months previously, came in 29 seconds behind his competition. Much was made, unfairly, of his wildcard status, but to come in even 29 seconds back was itself such a remarkable achievement.
It is the stories of achievement that defined, for me, these games, regardless of nationality.
Take, for example, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Fielding only two track athletes, it was not expected to set the world alight nor to get that far in the competition. Regardless, both of its athletes took to the world stage and recorded personal bests, Kaigaue David in the women's 100m and Nooa Takooa in the men's 100m.
Take my good friends Kazakhstan, who have had their most successful Olympics ever since the country's independence in 1991. I jokingly commented on Twitter midway through the Games that Kazakhstan's policy seemed to be that if a medal could be won, nothing else but gold would suffice, as the country had at that stage stormed up the medal table with six golds, no silvers and no bronzes. Because of this I entered into correspondence with two Team Kazakhstan fans, one living in the capital Astana and the other in the former capital, Almaty. They raised an interesting insight: the reward for a gold medal in the US, said one, is $25,000; the gold medal reward in Kazakhstan is $250,000. Aika and Balym were immensely proud of their country's achievement, a total of seven golds, one silver and five bronzes by the tournament's end, the same number of golds as Australia.
Take the Bulgarian volleyball team, whose coach Radostin Stoychev and star player Matey Kaziyski resigned just two months prior to the Games in a bitter dispute over sport funding and allocation of winnings that had prompted protests from national team fans for the resignation of the Bulgarian Volleyball Federation head, Dancho Lazarov. Written off without their star player, the squad revelled in its new team dynamic, all players now more valued and important rather than feeding to Kaziyski, soaring through the tournament to fourth place. This was the second best performance by a Bulgarian team in Olympic history. Alas, it could have been bronze, and the new captain has subsequently resigned.
Of course we've all been greatly impressed by our own athletes, the super Team GB. I've heard many stories of people wishing to take up sports having been inspired by our athlete's endeavours, though I discovered all too quickly that running is not for me: four days on from my 'little run', my shins are still in pain. But take the little girl who, sat on a train after seeing Victoria Pendleton at the velodrome, says to her dad: "can we go for a bike ride?" Take the little boy who tore past me as I sat in a park in Chelmsford on Saturday, running as fast and as far as he could before crossing his finish line, a final leap over a log.
"GOOOOLD MEDALLLL!" he declared, triumphantly.
London 2012's ethos was to 'inspire a generation'. In the opening ceremony, defying predictions, it was seven upcoming athletes, identified by their peers as future talents, who got to light the cauldron, rather than a sporting great from past Olympics, as had been assumed. In the velodrome, national heroes Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy effectively handed the cycling baton to the next generation of cyclists in Laura Trott and Jason Kenny. Beth Tweddle, an inspiration to women's gymnastics and responsible for hauling British women's gymnastics up the international rankings such that it can now compete for Olympic medals, for the first time in its history, was finally rewarded for her endeavours, in her final Olympics, with a bronze medal.
It was the realisation that these were normal people, with normal ups and downs, knocks and triumphs, yet achieving greatness that walloped my emotions. Tom Daley, whose rise since Beijing occurred alongside the passing away of his father from a brain tumour, was euphoric upon winning a bronze medal. He, as a poster boy for Team GB, was one of the few entrants who might have received criticism if he hadn't, the press mostly celebrating success regardless of the colour of the medal. And the whole nation had a wobble when Gemma Gibbons, whose mother died from leukaemia when the athlete was 17, won a silver medal. On receiving her medal, she looked up and, in a moment of extreme privacy, the world saw her mouth "I love you mum".
Of course we are not privy to the personal stories of athletes from other countries, but their triumphs come in the face of similar challenges. These are real people, who fought, refined, practised and practised some more in attempts to be the best that they could be, and then they had to get the bus home. Nothing shows this fallibility clearer than the Russian javelin thrower who burst into tears in the arms of a gamesmaker on the Tube after failing to achieve what was expected of them, as I heard recounted on BBC Radio 5Live late on Saturday.
|Team Rwanda at the bus stop|
Real people, becoming superhuman: it was infectious and inspirational viewing. Imagine, then, if Jessica Ennis were a role model to children, rather than another anonymous reality TV 'celebrity'. Imagine, said one Tweeter, if the devotion Mo Farrah has for his wife and unborn daughters became as fashionable as Fifty Shades of Grey.
Of course, now the knives are coming out. As the curtain has now fallen, Australia was the first to pretend to be British, throwing blame around in an effort to explain an uncharacteristically low medal table ranking, despite remarkable achievements by its athletes. My source in Melbourne informs me that all the talk is of poor performances, coaches training foreign teams and tax money being wasted. Over in Kazakhstan, despite the success, some are questioning the legitimacy of certain atheletes' nationalities or allegiances, as gold medal winning weightlifters Zulfiya Chinshanlo and Maiya Maneza have both previously competed for China.
But here, for now, we are happy. We hosted the biggest event on Earth and, irrespective of the world's impression, we're pretty pleased with the job we did. The dour, cynical country that is Great Britain - the rude, insular city that is London - welcomed the world with a smile on its face and, now that everyone is going home, we don't want to stop smiling.
Eight days ago I wrote something on Twitter, which has become the single most popular thing I have submitted to that platform. It was rather simple:
"Please can the Olympics happen all the time? I like this country being happy and positive, we NEED to keep it up."
Reality will bite eventually, but I just hope we remember how happy we were, how inspired we were and, most importantly, how much we liked being like that. If we can remember that, we can encourage one another to make it happen again and again. It's a two-way thing that we all need to contribute towards, but it is certainly possible.
Cherish good things. Say please and thank you. Cheer loudly. Be welcoming. Allow yourself to cry.
Great Britain: keep it up.