In case you hadn't noticed we are the ultimate Olympics-loving family who were prepared to throw money at the tickets in the first round of applications, but weren't lucky enough to get any, so small wonder that I have been unashamedly green with envy since the day Amanda Craig first told me that she would be going to one of the evening athletics sessions. No not just green, make that a vivid veridian, especially given that Amanda confessed a certain reluctance, coupled with a minimal interest in athletics. We have joked about it for months and when the resolve to go may have weakened I have relentlessly gently applied the 'YOU HAVE TO BE THERE' pressure. I did also ask if she would at least write a blog post for us if only to describe the seats, or the flowers or something. So here it is and great big thanks to Amanda for taking this hit on behalf of the rest of us, and for noticing a little more than the lovely flowers as I am sure you will agree.
You know the feeling when you get given a present which somebody else would really love, but which is your least favourite thing? That’s the feeling I had when my husband told me he had bought tickets for the Olympics. Guilt, guilt and more guilt. Plenty of people would have been thrilled. I’d love to have handed them my ticket. I’d love to have been able to donate it to charity. But I couldn’t. My husband’s employer is a major sponsor of the Games, they had all bought tickets and invited top clients to events and he needed my support.
Don’t misunderstand this – I’m as proud as anyone that we’re hosting the Games, and every time Team GB gets another medal, I share the joy. I admire so much about the people who take part, especially the Paralympians. Yet I feel about sport the way some people feel about opera, or Brussels sprouts. I can see that it’s a real passion, and that the people who excel in it are doing something remarkable. I can see that it takes gutsiness and perseverance and talent and luck – something anyone in the creative arts is all too familiar with - but it just doesn’t get to me as something interesting to do or watch. I enjoy gentle non-competitive exercise like swimming and cycling but shaving a millisecond off a world record when you’re a superman or woman already doesn’t do it for me. I’d rather read a book. (Mind you, I’d rather read a book than do anything else.)
Yet my husband and son are both really keen. They not only slump in front of the TV set cheering and groaning but go to the odd match together. Reluctantly, I joined them and last Saturday, when Ennis and Mo Farah won gold, I found to my surprise that my face was streaming with tears. The effort, the grace, the sheer niceness of them did get through; and besides, I love my country and want to see it do well and feel better about itself as much as anyone. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad….Maybe I wouldn’t think, like Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, that the sensible thing to do when a ball comes towards you is to either run away or stand still.
My Olympic experience began with catching the Javelin to Stratford (check). Leaving from St Pancras International is always an uplifting experience, and amazingly, everyone was smiling. The policemen, the volunteers, the hordes of people returning from the Games all looked like nice people who were enjoying themselves. I can’t tell you how rare this is in London. You only had to look slightly bewildered (my normal expression, apparently) for some kind, polite person to come up and ask if you needed help. I have always thought that many people have got it wrong about the young, and the unemployed, but I especially think so now because these unpaid volunteers were fantastic. Their enthusiasm, smiles, helpfulness and patriotism are a big part of why the Games have such a special feeling. If that bit can last, it would be as important a legacy as any.
Arriving at the station the more familiar sight of commerce trying to squeeze money out of visitors greeted my eyes. No wonder shops and cafes are deserted in the centre. Westfield has a John Lewis, and just about every other shop you could think of – apart, of course, from a bookshop. People draped in Union jacks or with glittery stick on tattoos, with hats and trousers and dresses all red white and blue wandered around, chatting and taking pictures of each other. I was especially pleased to see how thoughtfully the disabled were being treated, as a normal part of the scene rather than ignored. Yet the sheer numbers of people was amazing. Up above the crowds, the flow of people in and out was quite intimidating, if swiftly processed and well-organised. (How anyone could have thought security could be left to anything but the Army is the question – they were terrific, and many people going through the searches were saying to each other with a mixture of pride and respect that “they’ve just come back from Afghanistan, you know.”)
It was a bit like Disneyland, only better organised and with more genuine enthusiasm. Certainly, what has been achieved on waste land, in one of the poorest parts of the country in four years is impressive. I met one of the engineers who got the contract to prepare the site when it had just begun and remember him saying, wearily, that it was much more polluted and complicated than they’d realised – yet here it was, bigger and more densely packed than expected but a 21st century equivalent to the Field of the Cloth of Gold – only, let’s hope, more long-lasting.
I was most excited by the banks and ribbons of wild flowers along the river Ley, in a glowing mass of yellow, orange and blue. No bees….but many people were marvelling over them, and as a gardener, I hope it encourages more of us to grow native flowers.
Then it was time to go in, and here it was very different from what you might gather on TV. For one thing, the whole stadium was bathed in a weird kind of twilight, not what looks like bright sunlight. The effect was to make it feel much more remote, less intimate, yet almost magical – as if we’d stepped into a different world. Almost every seat was taken, apart from the section apparently booked for the Press. We had the women’s pole vaulting finals down one end, with the tiny figures we could see on two giant screens grasping their long lances before running for the jump. Seeing them as merely mortal size made it much more moving, even though the screen showed their every success and failure in repeated detail. How they were able to concentrate is one question: I never want to hear Vangelis again, nor what sounded like a botched version of the music from Pirates of the Caribbean, and the American-accented commentary drove many in the audience mad. Why couldn’t we have had one of our own presenters doing it?
The programme was particularly focussed on women athletes, and this, too was fascinating. I am so proud of my sex, especially when I think of how hard it was, even in living memory, for us to compete in feats of strength, speed and endurance. Down the other end, lean young women were charging along with poles held like lances, and flying over 4 metre high bars, to cheers and groans. Down our end, there were the women shot-putters, whom hardly anyone could be bothered to watch. I hope it was the sport rather than prejudice against a particular build of woman. It didn’t help that none were from countries the home audience could identify with (apart from New Zealand, whom we all adopted.
Sadly, not one medal was won by Team GB, but the mood of the crowd wasn’t jingoistic, I think. We all cheered Usain Bolt to the skies when he got his medal of course. Even from 200 metres away, he oozed cool. If we all shrieked and yelled ourselves hoarse whenever a Brit competed, well, I’m sure the Brazilians will do just the same in 2016. By far the most exciting bits were the hurdles and steeplechase, and the men’s 400 metres. For one thing, they came close enough to see, and witnessing their grace and energy was a bit like watching a herd of beautiful gazelles. From far away, due to the size of the race-track, they looked as if they were moving quite slowly. It was only when they passed that you realised they were moving at almost superhuman speed.
Getting home was not fun, however. Directed to use a different station due to overcrowding, we all walked fast for half an hour along the Greenway, and crammed onto the Tube. I walk all the time, every day, but this was one of the most tiring I’ve ever done, and it was clear many others felt the same. Maybe it was all the emotion? Today, my feet are two huge blisters and I ache all over.
To me, what was special about seeing these athletes in the flesh wasn’t perhaps what many of the other spectators felt. I didn’t know anything about their track record, or even their names, and I know nothing about sport. What was interesting was seeing what you could call the human animal, from all over the world, reaching for a peak of physical perfection in motion. What you see on TV, slowed down and magnified, makes it look more poetic and aesthetic than it is in reality. I understand why the BBC does it, and yet the short, unglamorous burst of effort and gutsiness, made after years of training and sacrifice, is much more moving for being so much more like what anyone else might dream of doing. They are just like us. They aren’t gods. I’m never going to like sport, but I do see the point of it now – and it turned out to be a present I’ll always remember, after all.