The signs were not promising in the run-up to the games. The feeling in the country was wrong. A failing coalition government had led the country into austerity and a double-dip recession. People were feeling angry, worthless, and frightened for their futures even as the people who caused the problems grew richer and greedier. There were arguments and backbiting at every turn, often accelerated and amplified in social media. Then there were the problems with the security as G4S failed to deliver the bodies they had promised and the police and army had to be drafted in. People started to wonder whether London was even ready to host the games that had been so long in the planning.
Then it began. An Opening Ceremony unlike any other. There were critics but this was an almost universally well-received event. The main source of contention was from some of the more swivel-eyed on the right who considered it to be too left wing; taking exception to the multiculturalism of it. But Danny Boyle had put together an excellent show with skill, action, and surprise. He even managed to work in tributes to everything that makes Britain great, from the NHS to Tim Berners-Lee. The lighting of the Olympic Flame was also well considered and magical as young athletes were chosen to light 204 petals that came together to make one cauldron.
So things had started well. The national mood was lifting. But there were still issues such as the heavy-handed corporate brand enforcement by LOCOG and the empty seats in some of the venues. Most importantly there was still the matter of gold medals to win. The days ticked by and still nothing came. Mark Cavendish, Rebecca Adlington, and Tom Daley all tried and failed. Then, on Day 5, a pair of Team GB rowers, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, powered their way to gold in their coxless pairs final. Later the same day Bradley Wiggins, mutton chops and all, and fresh from his dominance of the Tour de France, displayed all his smooth skills to win the men’s individual time trial.
Whilst delighted and relieved that Team GB hadn’t completely choked there was still little confidence or inkling that this would be the start of a gold rush. But that’s precisely what came. The next day more gold was secured in the C2 canoe slalom, men’s double trap shooting, and men’s sprint cycling. Three more golds came the following day with the women’s double sculls rowing, the men’s team pursuit cycling, and Victoria Pendleton in the keirin all delivering. Remarkably, this was just a taster before what became known as ‘Super Saturday’.
It started with the all-conquering rowing squad taking the men’s coxless four and women’s lightweight double sculls. Then the cyclists got in on the act winning the women’s team pursuit. Things were set up nicely for an evening of track and field. First up was poster girl, Jessica Ennis, who didn’t disappoint with a majestic performance in the heptathlon, even treating the final 800m almost like a double victory lap. Then Greg Rutherford leapt to glory in the long jump. Finally, a clearly delighted Mo Farah capped his astonishing story with a gold medal in the 10000m for the country that gave his family a home in their time of need.
As the games unfolded almost every day saw more gold racked up on a medal table that saw Team GB in third place when the dust settled. In the wake of Super Saturday there was Ben Ainslie becoming the greatest ever Olympic sailor, with his fourth gold. Meanwhile Andy Murray finally won a major tournament, trouncing the great Roger Federer in the process. The following days saw wins in the team show jumping and a lot of success in the velodrome with wins for Jason Kenny, Laura Trott, and Chris Hoy, who finished his incredible Olympic career with his sixth gold. Alistair Brownlee won the triathlon, finding time near the end to drape himself in the Union Flag before ambling over the line. We even learnt to love horse dancing, or dressage. Even if we didn’t really understand it Team GB was certainly good at it, winning a couple of gold medals through Charlotte Dujardin, Valegro, and friends.
Meanwhile our fighters were putting on a good show too. Three gold medals came in the boxing, with Nicola Adams becoming the first ever female gold medallist in the sport. Meanwhile teenager, Jade Jones, was kicking, punching, blocking, dodging, and spinning her way to gold in the taekwondo. On the penultimate day of competition early risers were able to witness Ed McKeever paddling his K1 kayak to victory, whilst Luke Campbell won the bantamweight boxing, and Mo Farah completed his remarkable double, winning the 5000m, to cement his status as a great British hero. The final day saw one last gold. Again in the boxing ring, as Anthony Joshua fought back in the final round to take the super-heavyweight division.
Beyond the astonishing achievement of Team GB, which reminded the nation of what it can do when it pulls together, there were many other positives to consider. There were notable performances for many of the Teams to take from these games. Michael Phelps became the most decorated Olympian, ending his career with 18. Usain Bolt thrilled crowds with a treble of golds, including the defence of his 100m and 200m titles. Team Bahamas delivered their tiny nation gold in the men’s 4x400m relay. There were also fewer problems with drugs, and cheating more generally, than in other recent games. But most importantly there was no terrorist attack on the games. This had been a real threat feared since London was first handed the games. The 7/7 terrorist attacks had even hit London the day after the announcement.
The attitude in the country had been changing day by day. A growing awareness that the British aren’t rubbish at sports. We’re good at sports. All sorts of sports. In some cases sports that many of us barely even knew existed. So, the reasoning goes, if we’re not rubbish at sport then maybe we’re not rubbish at other things too. Maybe we have talent more generally in this country. Maybe the people who’ve been trying to talk us down and belittle our achievements and who have succeeded in damaging our spirit and our self-perception are wrong. What’s more, maybe we should do something about them. As the quirky closing ceremony unfolded, in celebration of great British sport and pop culture, surely it could only reinforce this new understanding that we are, in fact, good at stuff.
The games were a breath of fresh air that showed Britain in its best light to the world. Energetic, skilful, welcoming, and multicultural. How long will this breath of fresh air last? The concept of legacy was a big part of the successful bid and we’ve certainly seen the regeneration of an area, new venues, a rekindling of interest in sports other than football, and a positive lift in the national self-confidence and desire to achieve great things. We’ve also seen the benefits of multiculturalism and working together as a nation. Characters like Mo Farah don’t fit the profile of immigrants and asylum seekers so beloved by the ignorant caricaturists in the right wing media.
But politicians believing that they will benefit from the surge in happiness witnessed off the back of the Olympics should think again. We felt so happy partly because, for a couple of weeks, we had been transported away from the problems that them and their friends had created. So rather than the Olympics reflecting well on them, the time spent celebrating our culture and athletic success will be seen in stark contrast to the times spent fretting about their activities, our perceived failings, and the future.
We would rather live in a positive world where we celebrate the achievements of people in all walks of life rather than a negative world where grasping, out of touch millionaires and corporations spend their time dreaming up new ways to undermine, deride, demoralise, manipulate, and exploit us for their own gain. Hopefully we can all remember what it is we want for our society and act to make it a reality despite them. But whatever happens next the fact will remain that the London 2012 Olympic Games were brilliant and we’ll always have that.