By Paul Hayward, Chief Sports Writer
27 Jul 2012
Doubt has had its day. By Friday morning it will be crushed. Scepticism has been forced aside by the grandeur of the Olympic Park, the enthusiasm of volunteers and the engulfing cosmopolitanism of the London Games. Negativity has given way to anticipation and even the weather has stopped moping: swapping its wet, grey canopy for glistening skies.
In the final episode of Twenty Twelve — the very existence of which speaks well of the British temperament — Hugh Bonneville’s head of deliverance points from a window high in Canary Wharf to the Olympic Park at Stratford and tells his staff: “We did that. We did it.”
It was the kindest touch from the scriptwriters: their way of acknowledging the Herculean effort they have spent the last two years parodying. Satire swoops on its topic and then flies away. But this time an adventure park of sport is left behind. A mini-state has been laid down inside the capital. The Olympics are no longer a fantasy. For a fortnight, they are the sights and sounds of all our days.
If the British can feel one wish rising inside them, it is that people who have come to this country for the Games of the XXX Olympiad will go home feeling they were looked after, entertained and transported around a society that is competent, clever and fun to visit. The hope is that the exodus will start on Aug 13 with the Olympic masses sharing happy thoughts of London and the shires beyond.
Why should this suddenly matter? Britain is a country that has always imposed its view on the world, through imperial adventure, culture and commerce. It never cared much what the world thought in return of these ‘Isles of Wonder’, to quote Shakespeare, via tonight’s opening ceremony.
Its identity was too robust to need external validation. But now the Games open in east London in an age of mass insecurity and collapsed assumptions, stemming from last summer’s riots, the Leveson inquiry, double-dip recession and the banking scandal, which has shaken all our senses of what Britain really is.
Smart modern nation or raddled old kleptocracy? Rule of law or oligarchical carve-up? If we have not been asking these questions about the hosts of London 2012 then we have disengaged our brains.
The problem for the Games themselves was that large tracts of the population had come to regard them as a symbol of national malaise, with their hubris, over-spend, rampant security needs, branding zealotry and probable failure to do much about rising obesity.
London cab drivers are still howling about being excluded from the Olympic lanes, commuters are crushed ever tighter into trains and stadium impresarios are incapable of distinguishing between the North and South Korean flags. The Olympic Park is part Disney, part British military base. Surface-to-air missiles bristle on tower block roofs.
On the day of Danny Boyle’s curtain-raising extravaganza, though, these are not the dominant impressions. Twenty Twelve closed with the deliverance team jostling for a new job: Head of Posterity. As from today, for two weeks only, the future is irrelevant. It will stake its claim when the bills roll in and if white elephants roam the park but for now we are concerned only with sporting enterprise.
Women’s boxing is here. The first Saudi women Olympians are here. An eight-month pregnant Malaysian air rifle shooter is here. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps and Bradley Wiggins are here. A grand parade of 204 competing nations are here: a statistic that places the Games far ahead of football’s World Cup, with its 32 flags. The interest may be more intense, more universal, for football’s global festival, but only the Olympics can bring the planet to a single place.
London is supremely diverse anyway, but there is still a surge a wonder when the doors of a Javelin train open and 10 nationalities pile in. They jostle for space with the swarms of volunteers who will greet, smile, help and compile their own private memories of being part of the Games.
This weekend, the Regeneration Games, as some call them, can complete the journey from national burden to national triumph. Tomorrow Mark Cavendish, part of Sky’s brilliant Tour de France winning team, will zoom up The Mall.
“It’s incredible to see so much appreciation of cycling in Britain,” he chirped.
Some will still say there can be no engagement with an event that will order you to remove a T-Shirt with a non-sponsor’s logo. This is wardrobe totalitarianism, certainly, but the sponsors are not escaping lightly. They are subject to the full scale of ridicule that keeps social media in business. Normally, when there are excesses, there are correctives.
Beijing was the testing ground but these will be the first Now Olympics. Twitter and rolling media blogs will send information, reaction and analysis whipping along your psychic pathways before the gold medalist has even wiped his brow.
When The Telegraph began campaigning for a London Games, through the late David Welch, its sport editor, the printed page was still king. Nobody could have foreseen the instant gratification of TV on phones or athletes emoting on Twitter.
If digital technology has abolished time, maybe it will make us all part of these Games. Perhaps we are no longer outside them as spectators but right inside a flashing and slightly crazed universe of immediacy. It seems apt, then, that a Greek triple-jumper, Voula Papachristou, has already been expelled for posting racist comments. Good riddance.
No sporting event moves with the speed of the Olympics and the biggest challenge now will be taking the time to appreciate each triumph before rushing on to the next one or jabbing an iPhone for updates.
Plastic Brits, ZiL lanes, five-ringed sausages being swooped on by the copyright police: these sideshows are receding now, as they always do when the sport moves in. And as British cynicism recedes, foreign observers take charge of the doubts.
The New York Times cast Britain as a nation of moaners who were pitching the Games into the mill of their querulousness. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate and chief executive of the scandal-ravaged Salt Lake City Winter Games, ascended to his pulpit to ask of the British public: “Do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? That’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.”
Yes is the likely answer. If only half the British team turn up for the Opening Ceremony parade it will not be out of lack of interest. They all want to win, or at least prepare as well as possible.
Just about every British athlete has spoken of the home crowd effect: the pride, the unity, the din. All talk of noticing an “extra 10 per cent of motivation” when the crowd has swung behind a local hero at a recent world championship or other tournament.
Football has already crashed the schedule but the Olympics are an escape from the Premier League monoculture, in which wealth increases in inverse proportion to Britain’s economic turmoil.
Gareth Bale withdrew from the GB squad on injury grounds but turned up in a Spurs shirt two days before his country’s first fixture. Bale will go on plenty of pre-season tours, but he had one chance to show his skills in a home Olympics. Now, he will never have the pleasure.
The language of these Games is already hugely enjoyable. Seeking a suitable cauldron lighter tonight, the organisers searched not for a man or woman but a “mutually agreeable solution”.
Drafting in soldiers, they aim to “de-risk” the security situation. Now the technical vocabulary takes over, stars knock aside bureaucrats and politicians compete to take credit for the construction of the new Stratford metropolis, with its waterways and flowers.
On a personal note, the inner cauldron was lit for me when Muhammad Ali was helped to a stool at a Beyond Sport awards ceremony in London on Tuesday night. His presence, however halting, adds the final majesty to the Games.
Fifty-two years after he won gold at Rome in 1960, and 16 years on from his own cauldron-lighting moment at Atlanta, Ali remains the best Olympic symbol. Even those champions who achieve worldwide fame subsequently are drawn back to the rings.
David Beckham, who is not an Olympian but helped Britain win the bid, has remained surgically attached to the London party, despite being left out of the GB squad by Stuart Pearce.
The convergence of Britain’s Olympic dreams is to be found at the junction of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets: hardly the Old Vic of sport before London seized its chance to attain a better balance between east and west.
To turn on the so-called ‘Cassandras’ now would be bad form. Most performed a vital service, calling politicians to account, mocking the brand-tyrants and helping us giggle at the mind-crushing scale of what we had taken on.
As the American head coach of British swimming said of his team: “The hay’s pretty much in the barn now.” This country won the 2012 Olympic bid pretty much by accident and had to confront its own success by building a stage for 10,490 athletes, 8.75 million spectators and 20,000 media personnel.
The panorama is now in place, and the vast human cast has taken up its position with the country proud to have created such a vibrant playground, even if filing through security feels like flying to JFK from Heathrow several times a day.
The infinitely patient and quietly bewildered Hugh Bonneville character in Twenty Twelve was within his rights to point through that Canary Wharf window and say with such satisfaction: “We did that. We did it.”
In that TV moment, the teasing stopped and fiction merged beautifully with reality. It was “handover day”. The gift has arrived.