Tuesday, August 14, 2012

My Olympics

Katie Taylor winning Gold for Ireland.....
I am the world’s least sporty person and not very keen on jingoistic nationalism either, so you might think I’d have spent the last fortnight or so hiding under the duvet. But no. Despite vowing to watch no more than usual just because it was set in the city which was my home for 20 years, I did, of course. And like everyone else, I had my Olympic highs - and a few lows.

Before the start of the Games, there was a bizarre mix of unexpected elation and a degree of panic in the British press. The elation came from the fantastic reception of the Olympic flame as it travelled around the whole of the UK – including us over hereand to Dublin. I wasn’t sure whether this was a nice neighbourly gesture, or perhaps required by the sponsors to make it worth their while crossing the Irish Sea, but there was a great reception nonetheless. The panic came from security, border control and transport issues, which surely helped to highlight the problems with contracting out (security) and public sector cuts (border control and transport) when you really need something to work. But in the end there were no disasters, not even with the transport system which can be dreadful on a normal day.

..... and Jessica Ennis for GB/NI
And then we had the bonkers opening ceremony, the only one I’ve ever watched and only because it was Danny Boyle. I must say most of it did nothing for me although I did like the James Bond moment, the emphasis on diversity, and the lighting of the beautiful Olympic cauldron including the involvement of human rights activists. And, of course, the big cheer for the Irish team. It was far too long – as was the egregious closing ceremony – and I suspect little would have been understood outside the UK.

After that I became far more absorbed than expected. I watched the sports for people who don’t like sport: gymnastics, swimming, diving, a bit of athletics. Amazement at how the gymnasts and divers, in particular, do what they do. The BBC coverage was amazing, and like many others I lost hours of my life to the red button and catch up internet sessions. My only grumble came when I tried to find out how Katie Taylor had got on – all the focus was on the UK boxers and I had to turn to RTÉ to see her get her medal, in a chokingly emotional ceremony for all Irish passport holders, even though I think boxing is barbaric and shouldn’t even be in the Olympics. One of the contradictions of the Games. Another was the debate on sport and class which meandered on as more and more posh people won GB medals. Great to be discussing sports education, but not so great when the Tories tried to claim that liberal-leaning state school teachers discourage competitive sports. Is that really still true? Certainly not in Northern Ireland. And in a competitive society, how important is it anyway?

More local colour with the three GB medals won by Coleraine residents and two out of the five Irish medals won by Belfast boys. Involvement in both the British and Irish teams may confuse those who don’t live here, but it’s in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and I would like to have seen a joint reception at Stormont for all the NI athletes from both teams. Perhaps at the next Games Team GB might consider changing their name to Team UK also. Other feel-good factors were the high profile of women athletes and the stories from the volunteer Games Makers, who were obviously having the time of their lives.

Inevitably there were low points – the US accusing a winning Chinese swimmer of using illegal drugs and the South Korean, Chinese and Indonesian Badminton players disqualified for trying to lose. But these episodes contrasted with the sporting nature of most contestants. There was the walk through a shopping mall to get to the Olympic Park and complaints about the cost and availability of food and drink – but less than had been expected. And the disappointing closing ceremony, with the only good bits being the extinguishing of the cauldron and The Who – unlike Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey can still belt it out (at 68! - go to section 18 on the video) and it was a fantastic end to the event.

And now there is the question of the legacy. First, a new and very positive spin on British (or rather English) identity was presented – diverse and tolerant, a bit odd but very creative with it, and very fond of the NHS. If it leads to more discussion on what it means to be British in the 21st century then that’ll be very positive. However, I suspect economic realities will intervene again and stop that. Secondly is this sense of collectivity and involvement, including the higher profile of volunteering. Again great if this keeps going, not so good if volunteering and the Big Society continue to be used by the present Government as a substitute for proper funding of public services. Third is the question of tourism and private sector investment. Although London (and other parts of the country) presented a very positive face to the world, it’s hard to know whether there’s really any added value in these events if they are held in cities which are already well known destinations for both. And finally, of course, there is the built environment legacy, particularly in East London. The Olympic Park, the sports facilities and the housing, about a quarter of which is for social renting. So we’ll have to wait and see which of these factors has an impact in the longer term.