Thoughts on the Olympics and Paralympics

The Orbit

As I got up this morning, it was like a summer-long dream had ended. The Olympics and Paralympic Games are over, and Britain has been changed, I hope permanently. I was one of the thousands of Games Makers, and I have been used to hearing the ‘once in a lifetime’ clichés over the last few weeks. It is a redundant phrase: no two experiences are exactly the same. Nevertheless, this summer has been special and instructive for me, for London, and for Great Britain.

The first thing it taught us was that patriotism can be inclusive, tolerant and welcoming. Fans supported their compatriots were, but also appreciated and greatly respected other participants. We supported Great Britain, as opposed to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and I have since found myself self-correcting when I call my country England.

Big events often stay in our memories through a few clear, individual images. One of mine from the Games comes from watching Mo Farah win the 5,000m in a half-full pizza place in central London. As the race entered the last few laps, people started to pay attention and the unifying buzz that all sports fans recognise took hold of the room. I distinctly remember the Arab-looking employees in a huddle shouting ‘Come on Mo!’ like everyone else. Perhaps multiethnic solidarity shouldn’t really surprise me in 21st century London, but it cemented my pride in my country.

On a wider point, I think we realised that our country really is quite good. Starting with the Opening Ceremony, the public (aside from a few of the ultra-politically-committed right) celebrated a place where dissent is tolerated, difference is welcomed, and the world is embraced. Of course we are not perfect (and the Empire was conspicuously left out of the Opening Ceremony) but our record on civil liberties and human rights should instil pride. We also were able to host London 2012 extremely well in the middle of a recession, with transport and security systems defying the pessimists. Overall London showed it is a confident, competent capital.

There was also an authenticity about the Para/Olympics. Much was made beforehand of its corporatisation. Spectators are herded through Westfield’s, a giant city of American-style materialism; a celebration of healthy living endorses McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemicals and Atos; and the IOC demanded ludicrously extravagant treatment. This was not rampant capitalism but rampant corporatism: giant unaccountable bodies taking money from tax payers and sports fans and effectively giving it to each other.

Part of my role was working in the so-called Olympic and Paralympic Family stands, which attracted controversy for not always being full. This was because the ‘Family’ wanted the space available for the really popular sessions, but didn’t always turn up. At the basketball they came to see the men’s USA team (with superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James) but somehow weren’t so keen on the Women’s preliminary round. However, when these stands were empty volunteers, school students and spectators were sometimes allowed in. Thus some sort of justice was enacted.

The cold hand of money wasn’t allowed to dominate the party. I loved experiencing the enthusiasm of everyone: from spectators to volunteers to contract workers. Humans are social creatures, who revel in being together and sharing experiences. Overall, it is people who made the Games brilliant and their spontaneity and enthusiasm is more eye-catching and uplifting than anything money can buy.

Perhaps the most tangible juxtaposition of these two forces fighting for spiritual control of the Games – soulless money and the human optimism – was visible in the Coca-Cola Beatbox in the Olympic Park. It was staffed by enthusiastic young people and featured a dance show performed by “Future Flames” (“outstanding people who spread happiness in their local communities”). This was a massive multi-national using the power of the people to promote it.

The success of the Olympics brought some momentum for the Paralympics and Brits rushed to their computers to buy a record number of tickets. There is an unanswered question about disability in society: where should the balance lie between treating disabled people as normal and making allowances for them? I think the Paralympics got the balance right. TV coverage talked candidly about disability classifications and how disability affects athletes. The late night “Last Legs” show was a personal highlight, as presenters (two of three had prosthetic legs) conveyed a humorous but warm attitude towards the challenges faced by disabled athletes.

At the same time, the public treated Paralympians as normal athletes. Crowds were, as at the Olympics, appreciative of other athletes but partisan – without reservations about offending other disabled athletes by not cheering them on as well. Hannah Cockroft was named by FHM magazine as the sexiest Paralympian. The sexualisation of female public figures is always disappointing, but this in a strange way showed progress: people with disabilities can be viewed as no different to anyone else. From speaking to people who work for disabled sports organisations while I was working, it was clear they were pleased as well about the amount of people wanting to see the Paralympic Games.

The question is what happens now, as we all wake up with an Olympic hangover. The benefits of positive feelings and attitudes that come out of these Games are impossible to quantify. Yet if we do take something away, let it be a confidence in modern Britain and the best things we stand for, and the power of cooperation, tolerance and equality. If this sounds too abstract, go back to your pride at the Opening Ceremony or excitement at the athletes winning gold. If those emotions felt real then, they can now too.

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