Hope or History?

The London 2012 Olympics has ended taking with it all the excitement and over-packed suitcases, leaving in its place a slightly depressed nostalgia echoing surprised utterances of “that was actually pretty good”. We have spent the best part of the last decade planning, prepping and sprucing our country in anticipation of the hoards of people booked to cross our shores, eat our fish and chips and sleep in our houses. And now it’s all over.

I say “we” in a loose sense. The majority of us have in fact spent most of our time predicting Armageddon on the public transport network. Britons have always found solidarity in the inconveniences of life, particularly our loathed yet coveted weather and I must admit I partook in the inevitable pessimistic attitude leading up to the games. I tutted at delayed trains, knowingly predicting “well if this is what it’s like now…”. I grumbled at the VIP lanes, moaned at the lack of tickets (despite not even applying for them myself) and denounced the elitism and bumbling bureaucracy that seemed to surround the lead up to the Games. Not to mention the inevitable humiliation of the rest of the world encountering the self-important, monosyllabic jobsworths that dwell on the London transport network. Combined with the “exceptionally busy” stations that Mayor Boris has been so cheerfully reminding us about, no wonder everyone booked their holidays in the first two weeks of August.

In the pessimist’s defence, these dark predictions proved themselves not to be unfounded. The BBC’s spoof series Twenty Twelve could more aptly be described as a factual documentary than fictional comedy. The doomsday attitude received further encouragement once word spread of the cherry on top of a series of administrative bumbles: the last-minute drafting of the army to make up for the catastrophe created by G4S. Sour-faced officials checking tickets with grumbling soldiers standing by to check your bags seemed inevitable and, to be honest, understandable.

Yet as I stepped into Stratford station (having bagged a last minute ticket to watch the women’s basketball) I was presented with a London I had never encountered before. There were cheery underground attendants singing down megaphones phrases such as “I like the way you move” to encourage the crowd to keep pigeon-stepping through the barriers – it worked, there were crowds but no queues. As we walked towards the stadium there were more of these characters sat on tall chairs asking for cheers from the “Ukranians!” and high-fives from the “British!” And in Jacques Rogge’s words “the military were just wonderful”. The entire Olympic park was teeming with volunteers whose excitement at being part of this once-in-a-lifetime event was infectious. Union Jacks and Mexican waves were abundant and I even spotted a spontaneous game of Twister on the colourful tarmac. The atmosphere was like nothing I had experienced in London or expected. I had, like many people, to eat my pessimistic, whining words as, it is safe to say now, London 2012 was phenomenal.

It was refreshing to see Britain sharing in something more positive than a reluctant appreciation of vaguely nice weather. By the time Isambaard Kingdom Brunel was tearing up the turf in the Opening Ceremony I was proclaiming in goose-bumped delight how wonderful it is to be British. I have since made the trek to Putney Bridge to watch the road race, held my breath with Becky Adlington and screamed at Mo Farah to “keep pushing!” After all that nose-turning, I completely sold out. Who wouldn’t? Forget the record-breaking gold medals for team GB, we have seen a cameo by the Queen, sing-a-longs with Paul McCartney in the velodrome, and Boris Johnson receiving basketball tips from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Simon Kelner’s column in the Independent takes a less positive attitude remarking that the entire population seems to have gained an unjustified sense of patriotism and unity, finding it laughable that we consider ourselves a better nation for having won a few gold medals. He makes a valid point; I am under no illusion that jumping up and down on my sofa helped Jess Ennis win the heptathlon in any way. French newspaper Le Monde agrees with him, remarking that, despite its supposed impartiality, even the BBC fell into “vociferous nationalism”.

But what’s wrong with jumping on the band-waggon every now and again? As a multicultural nation, Britain has experienced real problems which have proved potent when combined with the current economic temperature. If the Olympics and sport in general can bring us together under one flag, screaming for people of different races and social backgrounds alike then we should harness that, not reject it as unjustified. Now it is back to the harsh realities and there is a real worry that promises to invest more in school sport will prove to be nothing more than political opportunism.

The Economist’s Bagehot column takes this attitude, commenting that although the Olympics has provided us with a fantastically surreal couple of weeks, provoking optimistic proclamations of improving our nation’s fitness, surging communal endeavour and a whole-hearted patriotic grind for the British economy, the magic will not last. Instead we should accept that life is made up of moments and we should simply cherish the golden ones, “even if they change nothing”.

Romantic though this is, I hope it proves to be another manifestation of British pessimism. The circus will leave town in the coming days and we must ask ourselves “then what?”. The Olympics has rounded Britain together and revealed a completely different, optimistic side that we should not be quick to forget. Some of the most publicised gold medallists – a man who migrated here from Somalia, a mixed race woman and a red head from Milton Keynes– paint a contemporary picture of Britain that we should be encouraged by. London 2012 has been one of the few beacons of light in a turbulent decade and there will not be another opportunity like this to change the population’s attitude towards the state of our health and particularly our society. Now that we have all jumped on the band-waggon, the real challenge will be to keep people from jumping off.

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