Sunday, June 10, 2012

Flame Fever Grips Britain

The London Olympics--for so long a glimmer on the horizon--are now just weeks away.

Last month, while staying with my dad, I saw the Olympic flame pass through Cirencester. Before it arrived on British soil I had images of lone runners splashing through puddles, watched by only hardy enthusiasts. The reality could not have been more different. A torch relay that began in uncertainty quickly became a phenomenon.

In Cirencester, the local schools closed early and the town center was filled with thousands of people. Long before the flame arrived they stood in lines six deep waving union jacks and school children clutched replica cardboard torches, creating a carnival atmosphere. The sense of anticipation was palpable.

In spite of the corporate sponsors’ choreographed efforts, the relay quickly took on a life of its own and became the people’s event. The same thing has happened in towns and villages across Britain. The triumph has been to make the London Games seem both national and local.

But not everyone is excited about the Olympics. Many people argue that the two weeks spent staging the Games is a misuse of tax payers’ money, and that the cost, £9 billion ($13.8 billion),--a huge increase on the original claimed cost of £2.3 billion ($3.5 billion)--could have been better spent on education or the health service.

Olympic history is also littered with white elephants and debt. When the Games are over, it will be the Government left holding the bag and the British taxpayer who will be paying for it for years to come. The government is confident there will be a lasting legacy of regeneration, at least in east London. We’ll see.

Despite the enormous cost, hosting the Olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I can‘t wait for the Opening Ceremony. In any event, Britain always rises to the grand occasion. Case in point: The Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And we certainly have the heritage. Just look at some of the Olympic venues: cycling at Hampden Court Palace; beach volleyball at Horse Guards’ Parade; road running in the Mall; and tennis at Wimbledon. Not bad for starters.

A serious failure, however, is the Games’ dog’s dinner of an official logo. In an apparent modern twist on the Olympic colors it looks like it has been dropped on the floor and the shattered pieces picked up and used anyway. Makes me dizzy just looking at it.

And let’s not forget the official mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, who as one commentator joked, look like the offspring from a one night stand between a Dalek and a Tellytubby. They are surely the worst Olympic mascots ever. At the very least, they are certain to scare many a small child.

But if nothing else, both the logo and the mascots play to Britain’s innate quirkiness and mild eccentricity that the country seems to revel in. We seem to enjoy laughing at our own failures. Perhaps they’ll grow on me, but I’ll not hold my breath.

On a more somber note, the Olympics will militarize London. Officers with machine guns will patrol the Underground; Police special forces, their faces covered by balaclavas, will be present; and the army will man supersonic surface to air missile systems capable of shooting down an airborne target from six sites nearby. A Royal Navy battleship will also be moored in the Thames.

There are the things I love about the Olympics that live long in the memory - the medals, the anthems, the great sporting moments. I wish it didn’t need to be branded like everything else. The people’s way of engaging has little to do with Coca Cola, Samsung, or Lloyds TSB.

In Britain, the Olympic spirit has stirred something in the collective experience. And given how much it has all cost it’s appropriate that the games belong to the people. There was an alchemy at work in Cirencester that May afternoon and if a similar reaction continues everywhere else the flame appears then perhaps we can expect magic come July.

Photo by Ian Lloyd-Graham


Anonymous said...

Mascots: Might be an inbred cross between C3-PO and a Cabbage-Patch doll... (?)

Ev said...

Yes I agree that sometimes Great Britain can celebrate big events without cynicism and the olympics has brought everyone together.

Christopher said...

Anonymous: Thank you for providing a perspective more familiar to folks on this side of the Atlantic. Quite apt.