London's pride in truly momentous games
Nothing compared to being present for some of the more exhilarating moments, but TV does have its compensations
NOTHING PREPARES people for the Olympic onslaught.
What hits you first is the sheer mind-boggling size of the thing – it’s impossible to get your head around the scale of it.
Then there’s the commercial side. Everything from the Olympic rings to burgers is brand-dominated and brand-protected. It’s pricey food, pricey souvenirs, pricey everything.
It’s a lucrative business. The Olympic mandarins should consider amending their famous motto to “Citius Altius Fortius Sponsorus”.
They get away with it because of the compelling athletic brilliance at the heart of the games. No other sporting event comes close.
The football World Cup, which is massive, deals with just one sport, a much smaller number of competing nations and a manageable number of games.
London 2012, on the other hand, showcased the most mixed offering imaginable from wrestlers to rhythmic gymnasts, basketballers to BMX bikers, sailors to sprinters, and it housed and fed all the athletes, support teams and national officials while welcoming their excited supporters.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators packed into stadiums and lined race routes every day. They had to be marshalled and minded.
Visiting heads of state and assorted royalty had to be fussed over by protocol squads and watched over by detectives.
It has been an immense security operation, with a last-minute entry by the army.
And recording it all was the media. More particularly, the broadcast media, beaming those all-important images to the farthest reaches of the planet.
What the Olympics does is produce a perfectly packaged televisual feast for the world to savour – dicing and splicing every minute of action into portions of human frailty and triumph. Irresistible.
The main media centre in Stratford was a bewildering babel of word and voice. Right next door, the International Broadcasting Centre was the world epicentre of ego – like one big convention for Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy.
The pictures they produce of those heroic achievements, the close-up shots of agony and ecstasy, the back stories that play at the heartstrings, make the Olympics.
It was wonderful to be in the stadium on the night Usain Bolt smashed it in the 100m final, or when Michael Phelps swam his last race for the US.
For all that, you really do see far more on television. But what you don’t get is the fabulous frisson that only being there for the big occasion can bring.
When Bolt walked nonchalantly into the stadium, the atmosphere changed in an instant. A number of field and track events were going on. It was hard to concentrate. With one glimpse of the Jamaican superstar, the noise level rocketed. By the time Bolt got to his blocks, the huge stadium was in his grip, the excitement and air of anticipation infectious.
A rolling roar before the start got louder and louder. Think of the sound seconds before an All-Ireland final throw-in, or the bone-shaking wall of noise that rises before the start of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Everyone stood up.
This time, it was to the track and not the big screen that eyes turned for the seconds it took Bolt to seal his legend. Exhilarating, momentous and reason alone to be there.
Television can’t match the thrill of being there on such a special night. But, obvious exceptions aside, as a spectacle, the Olympics is better on telly.
Those fans lucky enough to be in the ExCel arena for Katie Taylor’s fights would disagree. When she stood on the winner’s podium, the flag rising and an emotional crowd proudly belting out a spine-tingling Amhrán na bhFhiann, there was no better place in the world for an Irishman or Irishwoman to be.
Local interest in an event makes it special. It doesn’t matter about all the other stuff that’s happening, you concentrate on your own. The specks bobbing in the sea at Weymouth made sense when you knew Annelise Murphy was sailing for a medal. Our boxers transformed the ExCel from an ordinary venue to a place of pilgrimage. Cian O'Connor in Greenwich made the showjumping far more interesting.
Without a focal point, you’d have needed six pairs of eyes and an extra couple of brains. Television makes that possible.
Wherever possible, the Irish athletes turned up to support colleagues when they were in action. The boxers, in particular, were a close-knit unit.
There has been much talk about the support for John Joe Nevin on Saturday night, compared to the astonishing mass mobilisation for Katie Taylor, which had commentators all over the world reaching for shamrock-strewn superlatives. But the women boxed in just three weight categories and the entry list was quite small. The men, on the other hand, boxed in 10, with far more fighters involved.
Irish supporters were never going to bag the same number of tickets for Barnes.
The turnout for Taylor, the most likely prospect for gold, provoked some bemused conversation among sports writers, who wondered how many of the delirious audience had ever attended an amateur fight before. “I doubt if many of them were ever inside the National Stadium.” But that was to miss the point.
Katie made our Olympics. She gave the country something to cheer for and lifted the national spirit. Young and old, they came from all over to see her take gold.
Like 79-year-old Frankie Fahy from Carrick-on-Suir, who is a member of the local boxing club. “It’s a great day, a terrific day,” said Frankie from his wheelchair, which he uses sometimes because he isn’t always great on his feet.
Matt and Una Dwyer from Crumlin booked their tickets over a year ago, long before their daughter arrived. They brought four-month-old Isobel to the boxing, and she slept through the din wearing a pair of pink ear muffs. Isobel also wore a green, white and orange bib for the occasion. “We’ll be telling her about this for many years to come – we have her on video and everything,” said her dad.
A homemade poster in the crowd caught our eye. It read simply: “Good luck from Achill Island.”
There were Katie moments for many countries this year. That’s another bonus for the Olympics. In the World Cup, only one nation can win. Our favourites were the Thais, closely followed by the Mongolians. They won the traditional dress contest hands down, despite a late surge by the kimonoed Japanese ladies at the judo.
But Thailand takes it because their vocal supporters gave the strong impression the Irish were in fact doing well in a lot of sports not normally associated with Ireland – the likes of wrestling and weightlifting.
“Thailand! Thailand!” they cried, sounding for all the world like “Ireland! Ireland!”
So it ended up with Ireland cheering Thailand and Thailand cheering Ireland.
Many nations together – total harmony. Just in case, security was very heavy and visible. But the bobbies and the squaddies were helpful and charming, the police officers wearily swapping helmets with spectators for photographs.
Explosives sniffer dogs were everywhere. “I hope you don’t find any,” we said to one handler. “So do I, darlin’. I’m the idiot at the end of the lead.”
The British royal family was everywhere. You couldn’t turn around at a venue without running into Kate Middleton or some prince or other.
The athleticism on display was stunning. It was a relief to retire to the biggest McDonald’s in the world (in Olympic Park) for a burger, fries and a fizzy drink. The outlet was so big, the only way to get an idea of how many people were in the counter queues was to do a head count, like you would at a protest march.
Because they had the fast food cornered, none of the smaller concessions in the park or at other venues could serve chips, except for the fish ’n’ chip vendors, as the British organisers baulked at the abomination of a chipless cod.
A small 330cl bottle of beer cost £4.30 (€5.48) while T-shirts started at £25 in the merchandise shops, which the crowds regularly cleared like locusts.
Cash or credit cards were accepted, but only if the credit card was Visa. That caused some annoyance.
Best chant of the fortnight goes to KT’s Sunshine Band, in terrific voice. After Katie’s win, she had to talk first to the BBC and then to America’s NBC. The crowd, mindful of the folk back home, tried to drown them out. “RTÉ! RTÉ!”
And how fast are those sprinters? The Irish Times paid a visit to the toilets in the Olympic Village. The cubicles were big spaces, with quite a distance from door to lavatory. Upon us opening one cubicle door, a horrified Jamaican woman (identified by her tracksuit) looked up as if she had just heard the gun and bolted from a sitting position to the door in a millisecond. We’re not the better of it.
The people of London put on a great Olympics. The city hung out its brightest colours and put its best face forward to the world.
Organisation was superb, the transport system worked wonderfully, the brigades of volunteers were unfailingly cheerful and helpful.
Rio has a lot to live up to. London deserves her pride.