Olympics ran rings around a perfect show


In the days running up to July 27th, the British suffered a collective bout of nerves about their ability to run the Olympic and Paralympics Games successfully, with post-imperial thoughts of decline dominating much of the airwaves.

There were some grounds for nerves. Thousands of security guards had not been provided by private security firm, G4S, leaving the British army to step in; while fears about the ability of London’s public transport system to cope were foremost in the thoughts of many.

However, something changed in the psyche of Britain on the first Friday, and that was partly down to the eclectic, quixotic opening ceremony, orchestrated by the film director Danny Boyle, that appealed to the British love of pageantry and the absurd.

Uniting Britain’s two best-known brand names, Boyle had persuaded the queen to join with James Bond star, Daniel Craig, an act which, seemingly, has still left some Japanese TV viewers convinced that she did parachute from a helicopter over Stratford.

Boyle achieved something unusual that night: persuading, as he did, the British to smile and laugh and be pleased about the land in which they live, rather than be simply proud and sometimes boastful about a past that has receded into history.

In the end, even security passed smoothly.

In Eton Dorney, the Thames-side home for rowing during the Games, soldiers cheerfully greeted the 30,000-crowds that attended daily, radiating in the welcome they received from the public.

With rare exceptions, transport ran smoothly, though some of that can be put down to the fact that orchestrated warnings had driven much of the non-Olympics activity out of London for the duration, even if organisers denied that any such attempt was made.

Motorists, particularly taxi-drivers, were infuriated by lane closures, but the early cacophony of complaints was drowned out as the public became convinced that they had a £9 billion (€11 billion) success, and not a fiasco, on their hands.

Five months on, the days of Londoners gleefully greeting each other on Tubes and buses as they swapped details of the latest Team GB medals have passed, while talk of a happy, multicultural Britain was overblown, if well meaning.

Nevertheless, it has left a legacy.

The memory of Somalia-born Mo Farah’s pride in his 5,000 and 10,000 metre victories may do little to help many of the younger generation of Somalis in sink estates in London, but it will help some.

The head of procurement at the Games, Derry-born Gerry Walsh, left his post in November, while just 100 London organising staff will be in place by the end of January: “They are down to one building now, not four,” he says.

Lessons have been shared with the Olympics’ next hosts, the Brazilians: “We have given them everything we could. Not everything will be the same there, but many things will. We were honest about the problems and about how we coped with them.”

Soon, talk of London 2012 will fade, replaced by talk of Rio 2016: “We want Rio to be a success, to build on what we have done.” For Walsh, like others, 2013 will bring new challenges: “I am bound to get itchy feet. I always do.”

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