Monday, 30 July 2012

Why I have had to change my mind about the Olympics. Again.



Over the last few years I have made no secret of my frustration about the Olympics.  As soon as the monstrous Westfield shopping centre opened in Stratford, I suddenly realised it was never about regenerating an impoverished area of East London.  Clearly, it was more about creating a cash buffet for big business which would 'regenerate' by simply forcing out of the area those who could not either compete with McDonalds, or afford M&S groceries.  The various sponsorship scandals (Chip-gate, Visa-gate, Crisp-gate, etc.) only served to harden my prejudice, while the targeting of local businesses by the IOC for daring to decorate cakes with Olympic rings made the whole thing frankly unpleasant.

Come the start of the games, I tuned in with a certain sense of foreboding.  That foreboding was not a fear that I would hate it though - but a fear that in spite of myself I would in contrast like it.  Because although I have always felt somewhat underwhelmed in the run-up to any Olympic games, I have always finally been sucked into an obsessive following of the event regardless.  In Beijing, my objections to the human rights record of the hosts was ruthlessly, and shamefully, lost amidst the excitement of every obscure sport or story about a Congolese gymnast arriving at the games after a childhood decimated by war and desperation.

In London, could even McDonalds and Visa protect my cynicism from dissipating in the warm air of Olympic excitement?

No.  My fears were justified.  From the opening ceremony I loved it.

It wasn't just the buzz of the whole thing, but the constant surprise at the liberality and political exuberance of its grand opening.  Celebrating the NHS, youth culture and a heritage built on industry and migration this was a ceremony which made Daily Mail readers, American Republicans and Conservatives wince - and there can be no higher praise.

What was David Cameron thinking during the NHS tribute, do you think? Did he feel guilt at what he has done to it, or excitement at the thought he could now get a higher price for it?  Or what did Mitt Romney think, as he attempts to maintain the American myth that a nationalised health-care system is the thin end of a communist wedge?  The Daily Mail responded with the obligatory story about an NHS patient who received poor care - failing to see the irony in the contexts of a ceremony in which the vast majority of nations receive no health care at all.

Since then, I have been rooted to the spot in front of a television, astounded at the strength and determination of cyclists.  I have let out gasps of astonishment at archers whose accuracy seemed impossible.  I have been gloriously bamboozled by the speed of fencers and table tennis players, and awed by the sculptured figures and grace of swimmers.  I have been stunned into silence by the superhuman feats of gymnasts and on the point of tears witnessing the joys and disappointments of competitors, for whom the Olympic games is not simply another event but an almost spiritual goal.

I suppose all this was somehow inevitable.  I loathe the corporate giants who have stomped all over these games, and have left with their pockets full and their seats empty.  I loathe the tones of imperial snobbery and nationalism which creeps into the tones of commentators.  Ultimately though, there are few things more inspiring than seeing people achieve such seemingly impossible things.

Dammit. The Olympics have made me a hypocrite, yet again.