OUR GOLDEN GAMES
- 10:07 am, Sat 18th Aug 2012
The last fortnight has given the country so many special moments. Everyone will have their own favourite. The opening ceremony as a wonderful celebration of Britain. Jessica Ennis handling the pressure of being the face of the games to come through and win gold. Sir Chris Hoy becoming Britain’s greatest ever Olympian. Michael Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympian in history. Usain Bolt winning an unprecedented repeat double gold in the 100 and 200m. My own favourite was Mo Farah winning the 10,000m and 5,000m. Mo, Mo super Mo how we cheered you round the track and how you lifted the nation when you crossed the line. Absolutely fantastic.
Apart from all that a change in the national mood. A sense that we no longer had to be gallant losers as so often in our sporting past but could compete and win against the world’s best. Taking pride in being host to visitors from all over the world. We enjoyed our moment and took pride in it. Our position in the medal table is an amazing achievement for a country with just 1% of the world’s population.
There are many reasons for any country not to host the Olympic games. Cost. Security. Transport. Legacy. If any one of them had gone badly wrong there would have been no shortage of people saying “I told you so”. Those who weighed those challenges up and decided to go ahead deserve credit.
The main credit of course goes to the athletes who trained hard and did so well. Victoria Pendleton wrote a diary about how, now that it was over, she could shake people’s hands when she met them (danger of colds and missed training had stopped her) and have a second glass of wine. That’s just a small insight into the dedication required to succeed. Early mornings training in the rain. Getting out of bed at an ungodly hour no matter how you are feeling. Missed nights out, social life put on hold, everyday pleasures denied. And most of it takes place with no crowds and little pay. One of the brilliant things about the Olympics was watching athletes who usually compete in front of hardly anyone competing in front of full houses.
People took a new interest in sports they had rarely watched before. One tweet, perhaps apocryphal but capturing the mood nevertheless, told of someone getting into a taxi and the driver saying “do you mind if we listen to the dressage?”
But who in politics deserves credit for all of this? After all, medals are not won without resources and the games did not come to London by accident.
I think politicians of both main parties can take some credit. John Major deserves credit for introducing the lottery and enabling talent to be matched with money. This helped turn promise into medals. Without it we’d have won a lot fewer. Of course not everything in the Tory record was rosy. For most of their period in office sport was underfunded, culminating in Atlanta in 1996 when we won just one gold medal, but credit to John Major for enabling the turnaround to start.
David Cameron has favoured less well. He looks out of touch with his golf club gin and tonic prejudices about no competitive sport and prizes for all. And his Government’s early act to cut funding to school sports partnerships was an attack on the very thing he now says he wants to see more of.
The lottery helped fund the athletes but it wasn’t what brought the games to London. That was a Labour decision, driven in the main by Tessa Jowell and Tony Blair. They saw the potential. They knew the risks but thought the benefits outweighed them. And they helped fashion a bid which showed a positive, modern, outward looking face of Britain.
As part of the culmination of the bid they took a school choir from Newham reflecting the diversity of that London borough and indeed of the capital. It was a graphic example of how Britain had changed and become home to people from all over the world (Aiden Burley look away now).
The same spirit was there in Danny Boyle’s brilliant opening ceremony. The ceremony was not only creative and beautiful. It was also in keeping with the mood of the London bid.
We did not win the Olympics because we reached for nostalgia, or presented a closed exclusive image of Britain. It was the opposite of all that. It was thoroughly modern, thoroughly diverse and thoroughly open.
In the end, the real credit is not just because the bid’s key backers kept believing when others doubted. Nor was it purely in delivering a wonderful Olympic games, great achievement though that is. It is in giving a new and positive definition of what Britain stands for and what it means to be British. It has given the country a new sense of belief and belonging. And that is the greatest prize of all.