Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Opinion: Does 'London 2012' redefine Britain?

Memorable Opening Ceremony on
Big Screen at Sports & Social Club

It seems, to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, we allowed ourselves a brief period of rejoicing during the time of the ‘London 2012’ Olympic and Paralympic Games.  Those who were lucky enough to be near enough to the venues and get tickets all say what a brilliant time they had.  It exceeded all expectations in terms of travel to and from London, the lack of long queues, and the friendliness at the venue, thanks mainly to an army of volunteers – the ‘Games Makers’ – as well as s friendly uniformed military presence.  Those who did not attend the Games watched Team GB’s success on television at home or in local Sports and Social Clubs or bars or at ‘big screen venues’.  The fact that there was wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympic Games on two of the main BBC TV channels (and BBC Radio Five Live etc) as well as ‘red button’ options meant that this was a nationwide shared experience.  Newspapers reflected what fabulous value for money it all was – about a fiver of a household’s TV Licence Fee.  Terrestrial, free to view, Channel 4 did their bit too with the Paralympics receiving record viewing figures for the station.

Olympic Park, Stratford
Soon after opening time on 31 July
What was unusual about the Games was that people who were not natural sports-people or sports supporters found the whole festival utterly captivating.   In the weeks before the Opening Ceremony huge numbers of people turned out on the streets – sometimes very early in the morning – to see the Olympic Games Torch Relay come through their town.  Suddenly the whole thing became a reality.  Strangers spoke to one another.  “Have you been to the Games?”  “What was it like?” “Did you see the Opening Ceremony?” 

To see London scenery as a backdrop to what was said to be the greatest show on earth was encouraging and a massive advertisement for visitors to the capital.  The view of the Royal Naval College and Canary Wharf from the equestrian venue at Greenwich Park was fabulous.  Tower Bridge was iconic.  The purpose-built Olympic Park has added to the City’s landmarks.

The Paralympics exceeded all expectations.  One of the greatest things was to see the venues full.  Those who did not go to the Olympics made sure they went – and enjoyed themselves to the full supporting the athletes.  But the Paralympics did something else: it got people talking openly about disability without embarrassment in struggling for the right words.  We learned together.  We commented on athletes who by birth or through circumstances had not given up, accepted their situation and were doing extraordinary things.  How inspiring is that!

Inside the Aquatics Centre: a view from up in the gods
Filmmaker Danny Boyle’s magnificent Olympic Games Opening Ceremony on Friday 27 July set the scene for a great summer.  It started with our history.  A bucolic rural scene of sheep and cottages was interrupted by the advance of the Industrial Revolution and the “pandemonium” – the word used - which eschewed illustrating Britain as the workshop of the world.  Those great chimneys coming out of the ground, the fiery heat and the crafting of discs, which magically were elevated to form five Olympic rings.  Incredible!  The soundtrack provided strong links too.  Underworld’s music had a motif – a whistling tune - introduced, amid the chaos of mass production, as a remembrance to those who died in the First World War then, in a more triumphant way, the forging of the rings in the air.  Finally, at the end of the Ceremony, as young future athletes prepared to light the cauldron – how inspired what that! – the tune was heard again.  These were not classical but dance tunes but were operatic in what was conveyed.

The Velodrome
The whole Opening Ceremony programme was a confident portrayal of Britain past and present, and perhaps our future.  It portrayed a multi-cultural, multi-faceted, tolerant Britain without feeling embarrassed either about our alive and well traditions: two Christian hymns were included in the proceedings.  The biggest cheer of the evening was given, at the venue I attended, to the appearance of The Queen in the Olympic Stadium.  Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Internet, was a special guest at the Ceremony.  His desire to share his invention so generously carried the words electronically around the Stadium “This is for everyone”.  The Olympic and Paralympic Games was for everyone, and everyone shared and enjoyed it.

When the Olympic flame was extinguished sixteen days later we were reminded of the legacy in the symbol of the phoenix.  The venues, the encouragement to engage in and support sport: these are all for the future. 

Weightlifting (Mens 94kg) at the Excel Arena
Now you could say that this was all very nice: entertainment and not reality.  I think it was more than that.  People found the Games a unifying and emotional experience: a shared experience.  What other events in our lives have had the same effect?  Often it is the sadder ones such as World Wars (referring to “the wartime spirit” which galvanised our nation) or acts of terrorism (such as 7/7 in London or 9/11 in New York) which make people stop and reflect: reflect on the bad things humankind does.  But this was a joyous event: a bit like a Royal Diamond Jubilee over a prolonged period.

The recognition of the past – our history – is important and the Ceremonies did this tremendously well.  But history is also the springboard to the future.  Thanks to Sir Tim Berners-Lee we are able to share our thoughts.  Our age is the age of mass social media.  As an individual I can share my enthusiasm for local history and am the first generation able to share on a free and global basis.  “Inspire a generation” was the strapline of ‘London 2012’.  The words are used to encourage greater sports participation but we all feel inspired, more confident, and happier. 

Greenwich: with equestrian stadium
to rear of Naval College: 9 September 2012
For now, the Games – both Olympic and Paralympic – are happy memories in which we all shared.  “This is for everyone”.  Britain seems a better place today.

(Comments very welcome. Interspersed are some pictures relating to my Olympic Games experience.  “This is for everyone”.)

Tower Bridge: 9 September 2012

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