Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 11 August 2012

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The difference between the mood before the Olympic Games and the one after their first week was enormous. The earlier mood was one of gloom and foreboding; the subsequent one of festive exuberance and goodwill. During my visits to London from Northamptonshire during the weeks before the Queen’s encounter with James Bond I found nothing but anxiety and resentment. Taxi drivers in particular were surly and despondent; one told me he had yet to meet a fellow driver that was anything other than furious and resentful about the prospective traffic disruption and the loss of business about to be caused by the provision of private limousines to thousands of corrupt foreign bureaucrats.

Nearly everyone else seemed to think that the whole thing would be some sort of giant fiasco that would deal a further blow to Britain’s prestige. Our own self-esteem had fallen so low that David Cameron kept having to tell us that Britain would surprise the world by managing to ‘deliver’ the Games — an odd assurance to give when no other country has ever failed to ‘deliver’ them and when Britain, with its long experience of arranging coronations and royal weddings, is particularly good at that kind of thing.

Relief came first with Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, which wasn’t in my view quite as wonderful as most commentators thought — too unstructured and trying to pack in more than it should — but nevertheless an impressive, sometimes touching achievement and flawless in its execution. Then, after an agonising wait, came a flood of British-earned medals that showed us to be a remarkably sporting nation. Who would have thought it? We were supposed to be obese, drunk and generally inferior to practically every other nation in our athletic abilities. Yet there we were, triumphing in one contest after another until we found ourselves in third place in the medal tables behind only America and China.

It was impossible to resist some pride in all this. People like me, with no aptitude for sport and even less interest in it, found themselves watching things on television that we wouldn’t dream of looking at in normal times — boring things like running, rowing and bicycling. A feeble couch potato, I could not but marvel at the feats that others were capable of; and I was especially amazed by the divers, twisting and somersaulting down from the high board before entering the water in perfect order, because I couldn’t understand how they learnt to do these things without killing themselves during training.

And then, of course, the dreaded congestion in London failed to materialise. As it turned out, the streets had seldom been emptier or the traffic lighter. It was a wonderful time to visit. This surprised and depressed the shopkeepers of Oxford Street who had been anticipating a Games-driven shopping bonanza; but it should not have surprised anybody when everywhere from hidden loudspeaker came the voice of Boris Johnson spookily warning us to stay away from the capital.  

But the Olympic Games weren’t really being held in London at all. In the New York Times last weekend, its London correspondent Sarah Lyall described the Olympic Park in the East End as being ‘a city unto itself’ that felt ‘as if it could be anywhere or nowhere, a great temporary community whose positioning outside one of the world’s most idiosyncratic cities is almost immaterial’.

In her excellent article, Lyall found things to criticise — the queues, the confusion, the burdensome security arrangements, and the cringing subservience to the Olympic authorities and their sponsors that resulted not only in empty seats at many of the events but also in a ban on the sale of any soft drinks not manufactured by Coca Cola, of meals not served by McDonald’s, and the use of credit cards of any company other than Visa, ‘the Games’ Official Payment Services Provider’.

But she was mainly struck by the politeness, cheerfulness and good humour of all the thousands of people milling around in the 618-acre park. It was the Dunkirk spirit all over again. But like the Dunkirk spirit, it won’t last. When the Olympics are over, it will be gloom and austerity again, recriminations about the cost of the Games, and anxious doubts about their promised legacy. So let us savour the moment, for we are unlikely to see one like it soon.