Last August I was intrigued to learn that the cash-strapped Cornwall county council was spending hundreds of pounds advertising for a ‘project officer’ at £400 a week to assist in ‘the successful delivery of the Olympic Torch Relay in May 2012’. The lucky applicant’s job would be ‘to raise awareness of this event throughout Cornwall’, while ‘stimulating excitement for the London 2012 Olympic Games’.
My earliest memory of the Olympics is of getting up at 3 a.m. in 1948 to stand by a roadside in Chard, Somerset, to cheer a lone runner as he carried the Olympic flame past us in the darkness for that year’s yachting events in Torquay. The few hundred who braved that morning’s cold had not needed the services of a council official to draw our attention to this spectacle — nor were we aware that this torch ceremony was not some ancient Olympic tradition but had only been dreamed up, under the auspices of Herr Goebbels, for the previous Games in Berlin in 1936.
Although I have followed the Olympics closely ever since, the only Games I was ever lucky enough to attend were in Moscow in 1980, which I covered for the Daily Mail. No others in my lifetime would I rather have been present at: it was a historic experience.
Not the least dramatic moment of those two weeks was the opening ceremony, staged in such unprecedentedly spectacular fashion as a showcase for Soviet Communism that it set the benchmark for opening ceremonies ever since. The highlight came when the torch carrier crossed the vast Lenin Stadium, then had to run up a platform of shields raised over their heads by thousands of Red Army soldiers, to send a burst of flame billowing from the great bowl high above us.
I was sent to Moscow because earlier in the year the Mail commissioned me to write about the boycott of the Games, led by the USA, in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Poring over ancient cuttings, I was fascinated to see how a similar boycott had been proposed in 1936 to protest at Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland. When Mrs Thatcher left it to individual sporting bodies to decide whether to join the boycott — the athletes chose to go, the fencers and yachtsmen stayed away — the Mail asked me to cover the Games not so much for the sport as for what they would show about how a Communist dictatorship might stage them as a propaganda coup. There was plenty of that to write about. Dissidents were purged before foreign visitors arrived. All children and disabled veterans of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ were bundled out of Moscow, as its shops filled with food plundered from across the Soviet empire. On the day of the opening ceremony, central Moscow was sealed off in the biggest security operation since Stalin’s funeral. Leaving the stadium I turned a corner to find myself walking the gauntlet between two rows of thousands of grim-faced Soviet soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder along the path to the Metro. But earlier that day, as I drove below the Kremlin walls with David Satter, the Financial Times’s astute Moscow correspondent, he had amazed me by predicting, ‘This regime will not last more than ten years.’
It was unforgettable to watch at close quarters the sporting highlights of those Games — Ovett beating Coe in the 800 metres; Coe getting his revenge in the 1,500; Allan Wells ducking for the tape to win the 100 metres; two Finns and three Ethiopians battling it out for a 10,000 metres won by the legendary Miruts Yifter; Daley Thompson ambling round his 1,500-metre final event to win gold in the decathlon, then sprinting away to evade pursuing security men as he celebrated with a forbidden lap of honour. I even flew to Tallinn to watch two Brits win yachting silver, because they were of Irish origin and could therefore compete under the Irish flag.
My descriptions of how these otherwise joylessly regimented Games could not hide the oppressive nature of the regime which staged them met with disapproval not only from the Soviet authorities but also from a good many sporting journalists, who objected to my ‘dragging politics into sport’. But, as the fortnight came to an end, several came up to me and said, ‘Yes, you were right about this place. It is utterly creepy.’
Each night I was there I could hear noises off, via my shortwave radio, from the wave of dissent at that very moment exploding across Poland. As Solidarity came to birth, the Soviet empire was indeed just about to begin crumbling. But the Soviets at least showed us that totalitarian regimes have certain advantages in staging an awesome spectacle, as Beijing was again to demonstrate in 2008. Not a few of us, I suspect, look forward to the London opening ceremony with some trepidation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 21, 2012