‘But Dad, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can’t miss out. We can’t… .’‘No, Son, it will be a complete ruddy waste of time and money. We’re too poor. Even if we tried to get tickets we’d only get really crap ones like Albania versus Belarus in the women’s football. Anyway it’ll be crowded and tacky and boring and horrible. Oh and we’d probably get blown up by a terrorist bomb. So really, we’re well out of it.’
As I write these words Boy is with Girl on summer camp in Hampshire. We sent him there, as much as anything, so we wouldn’t have to listen to any more moaning and wheedling and sulking about our total abject failure to get him tickets to see the most important and exciting sporting event in the history of mankind. And now his mother and I feel guilty beyond measure because last night we did a really terrible thing. We went and watched the athletics at the Olympic stadium.
It wasn’t our fault, really it wasn’t. A nasty bad foreign man — a well-connected American buddy called Scott — made us do it. He texted me: ‘I just had two tickets for you dumped in my lap, if you’re interested. Please let me know ASAP if you can use. Good seats.’ And because it was my birthday I said yes.
Now if you’ve read this far I’m very impressed because I don’t think I would have done. Once I’d got to the word ‘Olympic’, I reckon, I would have flicked on to another article — rather as you do, say, during Edinburgh festival month when you refuse to waste even a millisecond of life finding out who’s hotly tipped for the Perrier or what’s rocking the Gilded Balloon or what Charlie Spencer made of Peter Stein’s 12-hour Latvian medley of Shakespeare’s problem plays because you don’t give a toss because YOU WEREN’T THERE.
If, on the other hand, you were there, you feel very differently. Which is why I’m insisting on telling you about my Olympic experience. I want you to know, for example, that had I paid for those tickets they would have cost me £295 a piece. (Probably double that, if I’d got them from a scalp.) And I want you to feel jealous and impressed and also slightly curious. ‘What was it like, James?’ I want you to ask. ‘Could you see anything? What were the best bits?’
Well as is so often the way on these occasions — be they Glastonbury, Twickenham or the Olympics — the real pleasure lies in the atmosphere, the incidentals rather than the spectacle itself. I mean, sure it’s interesting watching world-class athletes at the peak of their game majestically triumphing or abjectly failing in the space of a few minutes or seconds. But really you can do that just as well at home. Better, in fact, because with TV you’ve always got the camera focused on the important bits, plus a vaguely informed commentary, whereas live in the stadium you’ve barely a clue what’s going on because there’s too much to take in: the stick men and women on the track, the blown-up versions on the big screen, the columns of officials in their blazers marching on and adjusting in unison, as if in a military drill, the height of the hurdles, the women’s shot-putters at one end, the women’s pole vault at the other, and round the track at the same time the runners in the heats for the women’s 400 metres… .
You get very involved, amazingly quickly. Before I went, I found it hard to conceive of an event I could have cared less about than the women’s shot put. By the end, as the enormous, not desperately Audrey-Hepburn-in-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s-like girl from Belarus tossed her final shot casually on to the ground (she’d already beaten her Kiwi rival so she didn’t need to waste any more effort) and hurried off tearfully to hug an older man in the crowd who might have been her trainer or her dad, I was almost in tears too. She was so proud, so happy, so pleased for her country as she mounted the podium to collect her gold and the Belarusian anthem was played for the first time in the games.
A lot of us sneery commentators have written some very snarky things these last few months about the Olympics. I’m not remotely ashamed to admit that I’ve been one of them because a lot of our criticisms (the ‘I ♥ the NHS’ propaganda; the Zil lanes; the drain on the economy) remain perfectly valid. As Rod Liddle noted last week, initial indifference has now given way to a witch-hunt atmosphere — the Dianafication of the Olympics, if you like — in which even the slightest manifestation of scepticism about the Greatest Event In British Sporting History is treated as an act of treason.
That said, after what I saw in the stadium on Monday, I’m really glad that the Olympics came to Britain and I think the organisers have done an absolutely first-rate job and I’m sure it has done our global image the power of good. My abiding memory will be of the scene at the end, as we made our way on the 23-minute walkway to West Ham tube: a boy in competition with his sister to see who could collect the most high fives from the infectiously cheery, multiracial Olympic helpers lining the route to point everyone in the right direction with their giant foam pointy hands.
Sorry, Boy. You were right and I was wrong. If anyone’s got any tickets going spare so I can take him and Girl to the closing ceremony, please let me know.