London 2012: what a difference a year makes

What a difference a year makes.

To paraphrase an advertisement for The Spectator, last year London was torched, in 2012 the torch came to London.

Whereas last year, the evenings of my summer holidays involved watching rolling news coverage of riots in London as a mood of despondency spread across the country, this year my holiday evenings have involved watching rolling sports coverage of these wonderful Olympics and sensing a mood of optimism spread across the nation that we now call TeamGB.

Alastair Campbell has identified London 2012 as a “Diana moment” for the nation.  As the man who coined the phrase “The People’s Princess”, he should know.  The Prime Minister had a go earlier this week when he referred to the Olympics as “the golden games”.  Not bad Dave, but could do better.

Campbell’s excellent book, “The Happy Depressive” identifies research by The New Economics Foundation which came up with its own equivalent of the healthy eating “five a day” to generate general wellbeing (or happiness):

– connect with the people around you;
– be active;
– be aware of the world around you;
– keep learning, try something new;
– give – do something nice for a friend of a stranger.

The Olympics has proven this theory works in practice and at the risk of being trite, my visit to the Olympic Park with my family encapsulated each of the above five.

One could not fail to connect with people on the way to and at the park.  It was like putting however many hundreds of thousands of people on happy pills in a single place.  People were smiley, friendly, helpful, courteous, enthusiastic, not cynical and simply happy to be there.  We even spoke to rather than avoided some neighbours we bumped into.  And this was before Team GB’s gold rush had started!

Those of us who have attended the Games have met exquisite volunteer gamesmakers, friendly policemen and welcoming service personnel.  Within 2 minutes of being in the Olympic park, a policeman had offered to take a photo of our family in front of the Olympic stadium and took off his helmet for my son to wear – without us asking for either.

We were there to watch a couple of hockey qualifiers, a new sport for us, a new experience.  We did our best to explain to our children what used to be at the Olympic Park (wasteland) to make them aware as kids can be of the impact of urban regeneration.  We watched Sir Chris Hoy win his first medal of the games on the big screens at Park Live in the park (a new thing for me, I’ve generally been cynical about how real the atmosphere can be at Henman-Hill type escapades – pretty damn good as it turns out).

I loved saying to my family, “we are here, at the Olympics, I never thought I’d say that.”  And I may never say it to them again.  I can say that out loud again and again, it never sounds boring.

In my lifetime, London has never looked better.  I’d hazard to say, at least during the 17 years I’ve lived or worked in our capital, it has never felt better either.  A sense of optimism, community, excitement and genuine pride.  We avoided British cynicism, we avoided transport chaos, we got over the G4S fiasco, we thankfully didn’t need the missiles on roofs.   And even the rain stayed away most of the time, the weather gods got it out of their system in the weeks before the Opening Ceremony.

Oh yeah, we won a few medals too.  And Auntie didn’t do a bad job broadcasting the whole thing.

There is no point highlighting individual medal successes in this blog.  It has been done elsewhere and with more justice than I could do it.  But I do want to mention the dignity of our athletes in competition, and perhaps importantly in defeat.  For those of us familiar with the histrionics of Premiership football where each potentially wrong refereeing decision over a throw-in is greeted by the players as the greatest miscarriage of justice ever seen,  we must contrast the reaction (or lack of it) with our female track cyclists Pendleton and Varnish accepting the judge’s decision to disqualify them (and deny them an almost certain gold) with grace, without aggressively surrounding the referee, without sounding off to the media.  Four years work gone in one second after the decision of one judge and yet accepted with dignity.  It almost makes me think twice about being a football fan.

I write this as the Closing Ceremony starts.  The talk is, rightly, of legacy.  The politicians are already pretending it will be across-party whilst scoring political points.  Campbell’s latest blog post points out why they ought not do so (he even praises John Major, worth reading for that alone).  Campbell also makes the point that the media might take a look at how they portray our nation.

But whilst, politicians, cash and media coverage will of course have great influence over not only the future of sport but the future of how we feel about ourselves as wider members of TeamGB, a lot of it is down to us too – the genuinely on this occasion “great British (and Northern Irish) public” which has helped make this Olympics what it is.  If we can volunteer, if we can speak to strangers easily, if we can express our pride without embarrassment, if we can show our emotion, if we can get behind minority sports as well as the big ones, if we can celebrate together, if we can commiserate together, if we can re-claim the Union Jack for the right reasons, if we can stop bloody moaning for two and a half weeks, if we can form temporary communities with whoever we happen to be discussing something with, then maybe we can bottle a small part of the incredible feel good factor these Olympics have generated.  Let’s try to eat our “happiness” five a day as highlighted by Campbell, a man bravely not afraid to regularly remind us of his own lack of it.

And whilst this won’t sort out our and our islands’ many problems, be they personal, political, economic or social, they *may* make some (no, not all) of them slightly easier to bear.  Perhaps we can become an islands whose glass is permanently half full rather than half empty.

What a difference a year makes.  The riots of London 2011 seem a long time ago, thanks in no small part to the riotous summer of sport that has been London 2012.  This summer holidays’ television viewing has been uplifting rather than depressing.

How to end this Olympic eulogy?  It’s hard, but one thank you will have to suffice: thank you Lord Coe for your foresight and vision, you are, at the risk of using an over-used word, a legend.