Heavens, we do like a moan. Sure the traffic will be hell; the commercialism mind-numbing; the Zil lanes a pain; and the presence of the egregious will.i.am, a man so irritating he makes Stephen Fry seem likable, lugging the Olympic torch is preposterous. Usain Bolt will probably miss the final because he’s been stopped and searched driving through Brixton in a rented Beamer, and the starter pistols will doubtless set off a health and safety alert. The miserabilists will have a field day or 15 but for the rest of us the Olympics will knock our blocks off.
You don’t have to buy into all the waffle surrounding the Games to love the sport. The IOC charter makes a couple of idle references to the pursuit of excellence before reeling off pages and pages about commercial opportunities, and of course savage sanctions against unwanted intruders into the money-pot. But the message of Baron de Coubertin about taking part is still magical. I once spent an enjoyable few days skiing with a charming bloke called Dave Warren. You probably won’t have heard of him and neither had I. But he was Britain’s third runner in that miraculous Moscow 800 metres final when Seb Coe just pipped the favourite, Steve Ovett, to the gold. Warren came eighth and last, just under four seconds and infinite strides behind. So no global fame, no sponsorship and no rewards. Just a return to his successful business career and the immutable fact that he was an Olympic finalist.
The other day I was at the London Press Club awards, and thank you British Gas for continuing to sponsor them at a time when journalism in this country is coming under increasingly demented attack. British Gas also sponsor British swimming and the great Duncan Goodhew was at our table. He had brought with him his Olympic gold medal from the Moscow Games for his superb 100 metres breaststroke win. I was able to hold it in my hand and, I tell you, an extraordinary thing happens and you start to well up. It is profoundly moving to be so close to this symbol of pure excellence, pure achievement. There is an inexpressible otherness about the damn thing. You can see why those blessed with strengths and ambition and talent give up so much just to get near one. And that is what these Games are about — seconds and minutes when great athletes move on to another plane.
And most of the time it’s not about audience-pleasing. These are for a large part highly technical, often baffling sports where you just don’t know who’s doing well: sailing — some specks on the far horizon; archery — not a clue; Greco-Roman wrestling — don’t ask; fencing — baffling. Even Goodhew’s swimming is splashes moving up and down a pool. That’s the joy, of course: these arenas will be packed and the TV audiences in billions to watch stuff we may not understand but we know is about human beings at their finest.
That’s where Goodhew’s gold in all its almost mystical power comes in. After he won, he put the gold in a drawer at home. Then he was asked to give a speech to a blue-chip HR outfit. ‘They wanted to see the medal,’ he told me. ‘There I was, speaking to a lot of cynical, hard-bitten people, but when they held it, they wouldn’t let go. That’s when I realised the medal shouldn’t go back in that drawer. We are physical creatures and this represents the outer limit of physical achievement. An Olympic gold is just a measure of one minute in four years, but it’s like the minute is picked by someone else. I don’t own that medal, it is something for other people.’
Now thousands of people, young and old, have touched his medal and been inspired by it. This is what a gifted 18-year-old swimmer called Michael Gunning told me. He’s a fine open-water competitor from the Beckenham Swimming Club, and on the fringes of the Olympic squad. ‘It’s always been my dream to compete at an Olympic Games and when I held his medal, it made me realise that it’s not just the reward for coming first, but the determination, guts and pain you have to go through on your journey. When I wore Duncan’s gold medal round my neck it made me more resolute to go all the way.’
Something similar happened to the 13-year-old Goodhew at Millfield School, under the inspirational headmaster Jack ‘Boss’ Meyer. Goodhew says, ‘Boss asked my coach whether I would be able to swim for the school. The coach said, yes, he’ll swim for the school, the county, the country, and possibly beyond… And I thought, what’s beyond?’ Well, it would be a few years later, in Moscow, when Goodhew did finally realise what was ‘beyond’. Goodhew now works with young people through Sir John Beckwith’s Youth Sport Trust, and a privately funded outfit called Premier Sport, which trains up to 200,000 youngsters a week. He passionately believes the Olympics will be a game-changer for sport in this country. Let’s hope he’s right.
While we’re on the subject of great Olympians, here’s a story from Sebastian Coe, passed on at the same lunch by the admirable Hugh Robertson, the sports minister who may soon find he’s got a rather bigger role at the Olympics than he thought. Shortly after the Beijing Games in 2008, Chelsea were at home to Manchester United, and Coe had been lined up to come on at half-time with a host of British medal winners. They were all waiting in the tunnel as the announcer started to list Coe’s achievements to the capacity crowd. ‘Two Olympic golds, several world records, innumerable other athletic achievements, and perhaps more importantly he has been a lifelong Chelsea fan.’ On cue, Coe marched out onto the pitch to massive applause. Apart from the 25,000 United supporters, who started singing, ‘There’s only one Steve Ovett, there’s only one Steve Ovett…’
It’s hard to get very worked up about England’s prospects for the European Championships, but there would be something very English about a Hodgson-inspired England win in Jubilee year. It’s Ginny Wade at Wimbledon in 1977. An England team without any stars coached by a man with no star quality might just do it in a Chelsea sort of way. Winning with style is all very well, but winning would be enough.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.