Monday, 25 August 2008


Despite my initial doubts about these Olympics, as recorded in an earlier blog, (the human rights issues, Tibet, the smog, the cynicism about drug cheats etc), I am not too proud to say that I got it wrong.

The Beijing Olympics were, in my opinion, absolutely fantastic and I'm very sad that they have drawn to a close but extremely excited that London will be hosting the next Olympics in 2012.

So, what changed my mind? How was I so seduced into singing lyrical about it all now?

Well, firstly that opening ceremony. How could anyone not have been overawed by the sheer sumptuousness of the colours, the costumes, the choreography, the inventiveness of the movement that ebbed and flowed, creating tableau representing aspects of China's history?

And then, when the Games started for real, suddenly, dramatically and wonderfully, it shifted from being all about China and completely about the athletes and their events...

And on the second day, Team GB (sorry, Northern Ireland - it should, of course, be Team from The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and sorry, also, to the Isle of Man etc. It would seem that giving an all-inclusive name for the team has not, as yet, been devised) got its first gold medal in the cycling road race, in the rain, which bodes well for 2012. Good idea for athletes to expect and cope with rain in Beijing because they'll get LOTS of it in 2012!

And then the medals just kept on coming at an alarming rate and I, like the majority of people, was gob smacked at just how well the GB team were doing and it wasn't just all the medals: so many athletes were in finals, sometimes coming fourth, which is pretty bloody good, performing personal bests or having a valuable taste of the Olympics, like Tom Daley, in preparation for 2012, or just being selected in the first place.

We are so used in Britain to thinking that when it comes to such things as world sport, we're very much the poor relations and losing, often badly, has become second nature to us. I'm thinking here particularly of the English football team. My heart sinks when I know that they're playing because I know what's going to happen and then I'll shake my head and wonder how so many talented footballers can hardly kick a football accurately on a football field, never mind win. Are they too pampered, too rich, or too wagged out to give a damn?

Try as I may not to be partisan, just wanting the best athlete to win, whatever country they represent, there's nothing quite like watching your own countryman/woman winning a medal, particularly a gold. I guess it's that primitive tribal instinct we all have of wanting our 'tribe' to win. And far better that countries compete like this instead of fighting each other. (I thought it was really sneaky of Russia to invade Georgia at the beginning of the games when the world's attention was elsewhere: it reminds me so much of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 when the Turkish army took advantage of an internal situation to cause utter devastation.)

But back to the Games. Because of the time difference, I didn't see too much of the action live but I did see most of the rowing because that was when I was having breakfast and it was wonderful to watch these races with the bows going forwards and backwards in a relentlessly challenging rhythm and how vital it was to get the timing right. Shouted myself hoarse, of course. My favourite image was when one of the GB coxless four pulled off his hat at the end of the race, when they had just grabbed gold, his long bleach-white hair cascading around his face in slow motion.

I also saw live the disputed Taekeedo (is that how you spell it?) match where the GB girl should have won her quarter-final because of her kick to her opponent's face (charming) but wasn't initially given the 2 marks for such a move, enabling her to win. The commentators were getting really excited about the prospect of controversy (so important in journalism these days) and the Chinese crowd were obviously getting agitated, thinking that their girl had won. It was really good that the decision was reversed but hardly surprising that the GB girl lost in the semi-final amidst a chorus of booing. However, she did win a bronze in the play off bout which was something of an achievement.

Another memory that stays with me is the amazing way that Usain Bolt sauntered past the finishing line in the 100 metres, striking his chest with pride. Now that really is a cool way to win. One thing that puzzled me, though, was where were all the bulky black American guys in the sprint races because they usually dominate. I must admit to wondering whether improved drugs testing has had a beneficial result in putting off the cheats. I don't know enough about the science of such tests and no doubt performance enhancing drugs are being/are already developed which are difficult to detect but I hope the technology to detect them is also being developed. There were only about 6 athletes who tested positive for drugs this Olympics, which has to be on the low side compared with previous Games, and it does give us some hope because when you suspect that cheats are winning, it devalues the Games. And I also think that drugs cheats should be banned for life, particularly given new evidence that the enhancing effects of such drugs remain long after a 2 year ban has been completed.

And now to the closing ceremony!

I was so determined to watch this ceremony, particularly the 8 minute GB slot, that I not only missed church but also my usual daily swim and John had to take Archie for his walk all by himself whilst I had a total Olympics fest.

I have to firstly mention Boris Johnson, because I was so chuffed that he was representing London and, for me, his eccentric, casual, slightly buffoonish manner was so refreshing to witness. "We're bringing pin-pong home!" he declared triumphantly, adding some humour into what was essentially a humourless Games. And this is where one of London's strengths lies: we're not going to get our faces so up our arses that we can't laugh at ourselves!

Having seen Boris Johnson on 'Have I got news for you' on a number of occasions, I've always had a sneaking suspicion that there was a steeliness to him that sometimes emerged briefly through all the buffoonery. I know he's made a few very public gaffs but at least the guy says it as he sees it, which is almost unheard of in a politician, so I hope he makes a good show as mayor of London.

And then we had the 8 minutes slot.

I already knew about the bus and David Beckham but I had no idea how it would all materialize, wondering how on earth it was going to match the grandeur (like an extravagant 1930's Hollywood movie) of the Chinese displays. Would there be hundreds of dancers in fancy costumes performing a ritualised dance routine, perhaps?

Of course not.

What we had was a pacy video reflecting aspects of London life, featuring a red double decker bus which appeared, as if by magic, in the stadium and a small group of dancers acting out the process of waiting for a bus by a zebra crossing. Perhaps it's because I'm British and it was all so familiar to me, but I absolutely adored it. It was low-key, very 'street theatre' (which we do so well) and it was immediately recognizable as reflecting ordinary life in Britain. So the pitch for the 2012 London Olympics was sending out an important message: the 2012 Olympics are going to be fun and we're not even going to try to present ourselves as something that we're not. For all the 'wow' factor of the Chinese routines in the opening and closing ceremonies, I doubt if anyone thought, for one minute, that what we were seeing was a reflection of typical Chinese life.

I'm not particularly a fan of the type of music that she sings, but Leona Lewis, dressed in a fantastic gold costume that so reminded me of Bodicea, and singing so beautifully was, to me, just breathtaking. Love them or hate them, reality shows are very popular in Britain so, again, the involvement of the X-Factor winner again reflected the country. And, of course, when Jimmy Page started to play his guitar with all the trademark Led Zepplin sound, with Leona Lewis belting out the vocals, I was ecstatic. We really do have a fantastic music tradition, second to none, and it was great to experience world class rock and roll in Beijing, promoting our own country.

The little girl stepping out of the bus and into the dance sequence again reflected our hope for the Games that the young will be inspired, and there was none of this 'we need a token child who can't actually sing but looks good' nonsense.

And, yes, David Beckham did look like a wooden top, albeit it very handsomely, and he's way past his best in terms of football, but the reaction from the crowd was wonderful because he's such a well loved and recognizable figure. And when he kicked the ball into the athlete's section and a Chinese athlete caught the ball, you could see on his face that he was absolutely delighted: a personal memory that will stay with him forever.

I then watched the beginning of the concert in London, after the Games had officially closed and that strikingly extravagant flame had been extinguished, and they would have to start with Queen's 'We will rock you' and 'We are the champions' because I love Queen's music and that sealed it for me: the Olympics now belong to us. Thank you and goodbye Beijing - we've got the Games now and we're going to show the world just what we can do well (and possibly badly!)

If you detect a hint of patriotism in this blog, then you are right. We have been so ground down with the negatives of this country, and I'm thinking here of the calamitous recent foreign policy that has severely affected Iraq and Afganistan and the foul behaviour of some of our young people abroad, on holiday, that it's a real joy to think positively, at long last. We have something to look forward to in the 2012 Olympics. It's a great responsibility but also a great privilege and an opportunity for our young to be inspired in a positive way and, hopefully, to become fitter.

I must add a word of caution here because I remember only too well what happened on July 8th, just a day after we were given the 2012 Games. I was so happy that I put my Union Jack flag on my car and enjoyed hearing the swish as I drove along, on that Thursday, to my Bible Study group. We had just started when one of our members received a mobile phone call from her daughter, who lives in London. London was under terrorist attack, bombs had been exploded and it was a national emergency.

We immediately put the television on and saw, with our own eyes, the chaotic scenes at the the underground and the area where the bus was destroyed. At this time, we had no idea how extensive the attacks were and we were all horrified. Lou lives in London and I had to really suppress my desire to worry about her.

It's times like this that I'm so grateful that I am a Christian and can draw upon a supernatural strength. I firmly believe that when your time on this earth is up, then there's nothing you can do about it. (You might ask why a loving God allows such things to happen but I am in no doubt that the terrible things that happen in this world are meant to be a wake up call for those of us still alive: to see that there are more important things than life itself and to examine ourselves and consider that maybe we humans can't do everything for ourselves. Life on earth for Jesus was pretty tough so why should we imagine that it won't be for us? This isn't heaven, after all.)

So, my main concern for the 2012 Olympics is the threat of terrorist attacks but I will not allow it to dominate my thoughts. Probably the concern that the venues won't be ready on time is another issue but if the Greeks could manage it (and I've lived in Cyprus so I know how slowly things are usually done in Mediterranean countries) then I'm sure we can. And perhaps the government might see fit to encourage an expansion of the school curriculum to include training in the practical skills that not only will be necessary for a successful 2012 Games e.g. carpentry, construction work, engineering, professionalism in the service industries (a good waiter is worth his/her weight in gold as is a friendly, efficient hotel receptionist, top class chefs - the list is endless) but also for life before and after the Games.

Yeah, and pigs might fly!

By the way, I took the flag off my car before returning home on that awful Thursday and a phone call to Lou confirmed that she was okay. How many times have I said this in my blogs? - that each day is precious because you don't know what the next day will bring. 'Seize the day' and all that. Sometimes it's hard work but it's the best way to live.

Of course, now we have the big debate, which I'm enjoying immensely, about whether the London 8 minute slot was a success or a failure and whether having the Games is a scandalous waste of money: people like Arthur Smith and Peter Hitchens banging on about how awful it all is. Luckily, we live in a democracy so we can have such debates but, for myself, I think that the feel-good-factor that has accompanied the Beijing Games and the excitement and anticipation of 2012 is invaluable to a country that has had very little to smile about otherwise.

And finally, one of the things that struck me with Beijing was how little cultural diversity there appeared to be - everyone looked distinctly Chinese - in sharp contrast to the cultural diversity reflected in the London 8 minute slot. So I think that it's about time that we stopped criticizing the mix of cultures in Britain and celebrate it instead.

And now to my suggestions for the London 2012 Games!

1. London and all the other venues should be cleaned up and the careless habit of littering addressed. We already have the legal powers to do so so let's use them.

2. Public transport should become first-class. (Can't help but laugh at this suggestion.)

3. Knife crime and gang culture in London should also be targeted and these 'sink estates' revitalized. Let's give disaffected youngsters positive things to do.

4. It goes without saying that security should be tight, tight, tight

5. Opening and closing ceremonies should be very different from Beijing. I hear that Tracy Kelly is in charge and after hearing a programme about her on Radio 4, she seems to be an exciting choice, keen to involve communities. In fact, I did hear that it's under consideration that the ceremonies will not be restricted to the main auditorium and I think that that's an excellent idea.

6. In this spirit of far more audience participation, why not have Elton John in the middle of the stadium with his enormous white piano and large screens with the words displayed so that there could be an enormous sing-along? (This idea has been received with mixed reactions but I stick to it.)

7. Also, those gorgeous Scottish soldiers in kilts playing bagpipes would surely be spectacular, plus 'River Dance' dancing. In fact, traditional entertainment from all corners of the British Isles etc so everyone feels that they are being represented and the diversity of these small islands celebrated.

8. I hope that Paula Radcliffe has another baby and then concentrates on training for the London Olympics - it could be third time lucky for her: she certainly deserves it.

9. Finally, no more pictures of Myra Hindley, thank you very much, and PLEASE keep Jade Goody out of it. I hope she recovers from the cancer that she has been diagnosed with but the revelation of her illness on reality TV and the subsequent numerous 'exclusive' interviews in the trash mags is, in my opinion, tacky. Come on, folks, we all know that there are some aspects of our culture that should not get the oxygen of publicity. It's not a question of trying to hide things - rather an emphasis on what is positive, which is so often neglected by our media. Bad news travels fast but good news lifts the spirit.

If you disagree with any of this, which is, after all, only my opinion, then leave a comment and we can have a good old barny about it!


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