First published online by Tim Adams.
I have occasionally been a bit troubled by those old Pathé newsreel clips of British sporting events in which, at climactic moments, the men in the crowd chuck their hats – flat caps and trilbys – in the air, and turn to clap one another on worsted and gabardined backs. It always seemed incongruous this Depression-era hat-hurling, and the film clips left the story unfinished: was there always a confusing and awkward five minutes on the terraces subsequently when all the hats were politely returned to their rightful owners, and bashed back into shape? And what of the impulse itself? Reckless, un-British, an expression of simple, unselfconscious joy – it seemed to come from another place entirely. I never quite understood it. I never quite understood it, that is, until this past fortnight.
Journalists, even sports writers, are supposed to display professional detachment and reserve while working. They are supposed to hold tight to their cynicism, retain their objectivity, keep their seen-it-all-before expressions in place while all about them are losing theirs. Still, there have been several occasions in the last week or two when even in the press seats it has been clear that the only honest human response to what is happening has been to stand up and yell and scream along with everyone else.
It happened to me first at the rowing at Eton Dorney, the British men’s eight clinging on for a heroic bronze. And then in the sub-tropical heat of the velodrome, when the ultimately ill-fated women’s team sprinters smashed the world record on their very first ride. As Mo Farah rounded the top bend in that unforgettable 10,000m race last Saturday, I was lucky enough to be sitting right at the end of the final straight and so could see the first of his life-loving, eye-bulging, you-can’t-catch-me sprint for the line head on. I was right on deadline and in a panic not only to find fresh superlatives for the most electric hour of sport I had ever witnessed, but to string together any kind of coherent sentence at all. But even so I was on my feet roaring with 80,000 others. And as I jumped up, a thought popped into my head: I really wished I had a hat, so I could chuck it as far as I could up in the night air, and not worry about where it fell.
Team GB has a motto, which has adorned the back of thousands of souvenir shirts at the park and beyond, “Better never stops”. For more than a week now, as all but the most diehard naysayer has turned into an Olympic utopian, better has for once appeared the only option.
It started with Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. Of all the thousands of decisions that Lord Coe made about these Games, the one to give a free hand to the director to set its tone was probably the most inspired. I remember talking to Boyle about the prospect, 18 months ago. It had first come about, he mentioned, when Coe had dropped him a heartfelt note to say how much he had been moved by Slumdog Millionaire, which had conjured up for the Olympic peer memories of the Delhi he knew from his Indian mother’s family. When Coe asked Boyle if he would put together an opening act for 2012, it was no doubt that kind of “Jai Ho” inclusiveness that he imagined for the Games.
The ceremony established narratives about London, and Britain, which the past fortnight has come to exemplify. Boyle sought to summon the magic of The Tempest in his Isles of Wonder theme, and you could half-imagine him channelling Prospero’s control-freakery in subsequently orchestrating the plotlines he had set in motion. Some of these were obvious enough, but still thrilling: the contribution of the Windrush generation to the life not just of this country but directly to this Olympic team. The celebration of what the tweeting Tory MP Aidan Burley called “multicultural crap” was not only a theoretical value but a living example of possibility and achievement and love in the family of Jessica Ennis, and the soon to be expanding family of Mo Farah, among many others.
And then there was the inspiring dramatisation of the virtue of simply being part of something bigger than yourself. The 10,000 volunteers who created the ceremony gave up four months of weekends to rehearse, 10 hours per day. Their enthusiasm at being here was properly rewarded with the biggest cheer of the night. That enthusiasm, given and received, continued in the spirit of the 70,000 other “Games makers”, of all backgrounds and from far and wide, who quickly became the human face of these Olympics, welcoming and marshalling with unfailing good humour, proud just to be involved.
In some senses Boyle’s exuberant vision appeared to have been conceived not only in response to the regimented order of Beijing, but also to the joyous but deferential spirit of the recent jubilee. In his still respectful script, the Queen was cast as one willing volunteer among many thousands. The cult of celebrity was likewise represented in cheerful quote marks – Becks in a speedboat! – without once forgetting that the superstars of our history, and of our present, were the people who had forged trade unions and created the NHS, the innovators and artists who had pioneered the freedom and dissent and tolerance of our democracy, and those who had fought for its preservation.
The presence of the military at these Games was an afterthought, but as it has turned out a hugely welcome one. G4S’s incompetence allowed British crowds an opportunity to show spontaneous respect for the Abide with Me sacrifices of young men and women back from Helmand, every time the big-screen cameras panned to them. And rarely can security checks have been more briskly efficient or warmly received.
Though no doubt in the coming months politicians of all shades will try to make “this is for everyone” capital out of these Games, the overwhelming message from them is that – though political will made them possible – it is people, athletes and organisers and workers and volunteers who gave them their generous heart. The prime minister seems keen to build from the Games an argument for greater red-in-tooth-and-claw competition among schoolchildren, as if the single goal of the Games was to create more medal winners.
What these Olympics have been about, though, is not the necessity of being the best, but the pleasures of finding out the best you can be. The rewards of dedication and participation should be the message, not some winner-takes-all elitism.
Another vexed national question in the coming months will be this one: who is the most worthy winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year? Should it be Bradley Wiggins, who set the ball rolling with his modfather sideburns on his golden throne? The mesmerising Jessica Ennis, who trumped David Bowie’s suggestion that “we could be heroes just for one day” and did it effortlessly for two? Andy Murray burying his demons and Roger Federer, and finally finding love with the Great British Public? The seafaring great Ben Ainslie, ruling the waves off Portland Bill? The Boy’s Own triathlete Alistair Brownlee, who engineered not only his own gold, but helped to secure kid brother Jonny’s bronze? The non-stop giggling phenomenon that is Laura Trott, overnight heroine of asthmatics everywhere? Or the incomparable Sir Chris Hoy? Or mighty Mo himself?
A more pertinent question might be: what have we done to deserve all these brilliant and vivid characters? There has been the usual British obsession, media-fuelled, of separating them out in terms of perceived class, as if the only thing that counted about anyone, ever, was where they went to school. But these didn’t seem to be questions any of the team were asking themselves. They were not only called Team GB, they behaved like Team GB, drawing energy from each other across all disciplines, from dressage to boxing, as well as from the brilliant crowds. In post-race interviews, and on the various crowded BBC sofas, winners and losers, to a man and woman, also appeared to be walking articulations of Kipling’s If: humble and emotional in victory, gracious and dignified in defeat.
One legacy of these Games worth having would be a demand from the replica-shirt buying public, long fed “the price of everything” ethos of the Premiership, for a resurgence in values of sportsmanship. The football season starts next weekend, and rarely can there have been less appetite for sheikh-and-oligarch-funded hundred-grand-a-week egos. Next time you watch Alex Ferguson apoplectic about some perceived refereeing error or John Terry snarling, it might be hard not to bear in mind the good grace of the likes of Louis Smith, the charismatic British gymnast.
Smith had devoted much of his life to setting new standards at pirouetting on a pommel horse. He even gave up on love a year before his event because, having split up from his girlfriend, he didn’t want another broken heart to get in the way of an Olympic medal. His coach reckoned he had performed more than a million revolutions on his apparatus in preparation for his 50-second assault on perfection.
And then he came up against someone else who had done exactly the same. Smith was awarded the identical score as his Hungarian rival to three decimal places; he lost on countback – a comparison of earlier scores – and was entirely without complaint or rancour in defeat, satisfied he had lost out to the better man. His gracious example was matched by Victoria Pendleton, twice denied a likely gold by pedantic applications of the rules; and by the self-effacement of countless others.
Morrissey was as adrift in his comments about “blustering jingoism” as the MP Burley has been about multiculturalism in the opening ceremony. The response to success and failure has, in my experience at all the venues, looked a likably British kind of nationalism, a delight that it is all going better than hoped, and a sustained respect for brilliance from whichever nation it came.
Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps have been afforded well-deserved love and respect, but so have all the other athletes. The tone has been well judged, too, by the BBC – the one corporation, despite fears to the contrary, that has been a dominant presence at them. The national broadcaster has rediscovered its purpose in reflecting the mood of the big occasion – and shown the emotional intelligence of it retaining the rights to such unifying events.
When Seb Coe stood up and said at the opening ceremony, before it all unfolded, that what he hoped for the Games was that “we will be able to tell our children and our grandchildren that we did it right”, it sounded a bit sententious. But in this and much else about these Games he has not been far wrong. Coe kept his faith in what the 2012 project might achieve, and has resisted any “I-told-you-so” moments now that so much of it has worked out. My favourite Coe moment of the past fortnight was seeing the Olympian in Chief held in a queue behind the back of the stands before the start of the triathlon by a super-efficient volunteer on the “Olympic Family” gate. I went in and watched the athletes plunge into the Serpentine, and 10 minutes later went back out; Lord Coe was still there in the queue behind the stand, patiently waiting his turn, with a slightly amused look on his face.
I don’t know if the closing ceremony will quote those other indelible lines from Shakespeare’s great valedictory play, The Tempest, to bookend the opening epigram, but you can’t help feeling it should: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors/as I foretold you, were all spirits/and are melted into air, into thin air… We are such stuff/as dreams are made on; and our little life/is rounded with a sleep.”
King Bradley Wiggins said something of the same, when he stepped up to receive his gold medal at Hampton Court, a week after becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France. In the midst of all the wall-to-wall euphoria he admitted: “There is almost slight melancholy. I realised on the podium that that’s probably it for me. I don’t think anything is going to top that.”
That slight melancholy will be widely shared when the flame moves on tomorrow night. It may be that the Olympic Games leaves behind little of tangible substance – though you trust at least that some of its physical infrastructure, all that massive concrete investment, will spread at least a little lasting benefit to the east of the capital. But even if all that lasts of the great memory machine of the past fortnight is the stuff that dreams are made on in a few million young – and old – imaginations, then you might argue it will have fulfilled its purpose.
The brief sense of kinship, writ large, feels like that excitement you feel coming out of a life-changing play or film, back into the real world outside and anxious to talk 10 to the dozen about the drama you just witnessed. It is a reminder that, despite everything, despite all the crises and anxieties and frustration and pain of the world, life might just occasionally require you to throw a hat up in the air, because it is the only sensible thing to do.