How the Olympics Brought Me Home
Back in January Gabby Logan appeared as a guest on Room 101. She suggested that people who put down the then forthcoming Olympics should be banished. Her protest and passion were infectious. “You don’t have to love sport. You have to love drama, passion, enthusiasm, the human spirit and all the things that make people unique.”
I nodded along in agreement as Gabby punctuated each statement with her fist. Once she’d finished presenting her manifesto, I threw down my forkful of Friday night chicken and spinach Balti and applauded. She guaranteed that even those who claimed not to care would be moved by daily triumphs over adversity come the end of July. The studio audience erupted, while Frank Skinner pulled the lever and grudgingly agreed that the party poopers should be sent down the chute.
In the months leading up to the Games that brief flourish of giddy anticipation dispersed. It made me sad. I have always loved sport. I have always thought the Olympic Games was an awe-inspiring spectacle even before the competition begins. Secretly, I’ve always wished I could compete in something. This past fortnight has filled my head with crazy ideas that maybe I should. I may not belong to the generation Seb & Co. were hoping to inspire, but I’m all puffed up with neon-bright oomph.
The thought that we’d have the Games on our doorsteps and in a time zone that didn’t muster a nauseatingly early alarm call was exciting. I was determined that, despite whatever mockery was thrown at me, nobody would rain on my parade. We’re a curious bunch, the British. We’ll complain when it drizzles and then grumble that we’re too warm when the sun comes out. We wouldn’t be us if we didn’t expect the London Games to be a disaster. But I so wanted to hope for the best.
Several years with a (now very ex) American boyfriend left me confused as to how British I felt. That ever so unapologetic positivity Americans radiate is catching. I never wanted to be an American, and I flat-out refused to accept when he offered to buy me some Team USA gear during Beijing 2008. But my desire to be there more than I wanted to be here made Britain feel like the booby prize. At the time, anyway. Not now. Especially not now.
Even days before the opening ceremony, news reports were filled with members of the public shrugging their shoulders on being asked if they cared that the biggest event in the sporting world was about to begin. Jeremy Hunt’s dysfunctional bell end was hardly the most prosperous indicator of things to come. But it all seemed to change when Mitt Romney suggested we weren’t ready to be hosts. And that’s the other thing about the British; we might put ourselves down, but if anyone else has a pop, we have none of it, mate. We’re particularly allergic to American criticism.
Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was utterly mind-blowing and it set a level of unfamiliar self-confidence that just wouldn’t quit. For the first week of the Games I was lucky enough to be away from the office. I hardly budged from my seat. I was completely addicted. If there was a rehab programme, I didn’t want to be admitted. I was obsessed with the feist and the tears and the glory and the anguish.
While taking an Olympics break to watch EastEnders one night, I felt jittery. I sat, wondering what I was missing in the Aquatic Centre. My crack pipe was just a button push away. I got hooked on that heady feeling of seeing one of our own just trying for a medal. Every single member of Team GB felt like family, but to all of us. On day five I bought myself a Team GB hoodie; not to support the team, but to feel part of it.
The most lovely thing of all was that everyone caught the same bug. We all fell in love with each other, snogged each other’s faces off and gave each other the most delicious disease. My Twitter feed exploded with pride when we won. It felt like a big, squidgy hug when we lost and it banded together when it appeared that justice hadn’t been done. When our Men’s 4×100 relay team were disqualified because Adam Gemili didn’t snatch the baton quickly enough, everyone seemed to simultaneously reach their arms out in commiseration.
The people who shrugged just days before these Games started began punching the air along with the early adopters. I had the privilege of watching someone who has never seen the point of sport, get it for the first time. And it was a privilege, even if their understanding fizzles out again. I witnessed the flicker. Yes, sport is about training, physical exertion and being the best, but it’s also about sharing. It’s about believing in something collectively and sharing the outcome; good, bad, ugly and sometimes a combination of all three. As the closing ceremony wrapped up, Hazel Irvine said “I have always believed in the power of sport, but I have never seen sport so powerful.”
Of course there were the big moments; the slow motion victories and losses that we screamed at in our millions. Jessica Ennis. Usain Bolt. Michael Phelps. Mo Farah. They are the history snippets that will be replayed during 2016 and 2020 and beyond. But the events that made me blub the most – and I mean in that shameless way toddlers sob – came from sports I don’t generally engage in throughout the year. When Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter had pushed their rowing muscles to the limit and could hardly force their lips to form coherent speech, I lost control of my tear ducts. Mark Hunter’s “Sorry to everybody we’ve let down” followed by John Inverdale’s quivering refusal to accept the apology reduced me to a mass of salt water and streaming eyeliner.
My next really big session came on the final day in the velodrome. I lost it when Laura Trott practically threw her body into her family and friends as she cycled herself to her second gold medal. I broke again when Victoria Pendleton whimpered through the first interview following the final race of her career. Sir Chris Hoy’s podium tears completed my soggy-eyed hat-trick.
Admittedly, Gabby Logan was preaching to the converted when she gave her Room 101 sermon. I had already reserved my front row pew. But she was absolutely right. These Games were about the human spirit more than any score cards and points tally. Having said that, there is something rather wonderful about the fact that this tiny island ended up third in the medal table; only beaten by two countries whose populations dwarf our own. For all our usual guff about being loveable losers and setting up camp in cosy underdog territory, we don’t half love winning!
In that same episode of Room 101, Gabby said “The festival atmosphere of an Olympic Games and what it brings to a city, what it does to a city and a country’s self esteem is just incredible.” Again, she was right. My faith in sport (with the exception of football) has never been shaken. My faith in Britain has wavered. Now I am home and I’m home for good.