We Brits are a modest lot, disinclined to toot our own horn even when congratulations are well deserved. In fact, so uneasy are we with triumphalism that we invariably inoculate ourselves against possible humiliation by talking down all great events well in advance. So, having found ourselves to be the successful hosts of the greatest party on the planet, not to mention coming third in the medal table, we’re a bit embarrassed. And wistfully hung over, reluctant to leave behind the great view of the stadium and all it has come to represent. It’s still the backdrop to the breakfast news bulletins as the last drops of comment and analysis are wrung out of London 2012.
I was always the kid who developed a tactical tummy-ache on Games day at school. Uncoordinated, over-protected and short-sighted, the last to be picked for any team, and to this day I have never mastered swimming or riding a bike. For most of my adult life, I’ve been indifferent to televised sport, and sometimes openly hostile to it. I can’t claim that the Olympics has produced a Damascene conversion, but it has got me out running at 7.00am, the BBC Olympic theme ringing from my iPod. I’ve lost enough weight recently to appreciate, just a little, what it must take to bring your body to the peak of perfection, and enjoyed the events more than I’d have believed possible.
The Opening Ceremony remains the highlight for me, particularly the ethereal beauty of Caliban’s Dream as the cauldron was ignited late on that magical evening. Danny Boyle took risks – he faced the contradictions and tensions of our multi-cultural, class-dominated, tense and occasionally grudging society head on, and out of that dissonance produced something extraordinary and creative.
The Closing Ceremony was an altogether more predictable affair, and it lacked the focus of Boyle’s event. The image of Essex Girls trampling over our literary heritage came a bit too close to home as we returned to a culture that glorifies five minutes of X-Factor inspired fame over many years of self-discipline and graft. I’m sorry if that sounds joyless, and I won’t deny that it was a great party and definitely had its moments. Brian May ought to get a gold medal for guitar playing, and how can you not love the image of Eric Idle popping out of a cannon and turning out to be in much better vocal shape than some of his rock-god contemporaries? In the end, it was a party and like all parties, you had to be there to really appreciate it.
For a good chunk of the two golden weeks I was out of the country, hiking in the Swiss Alps. I was fit, but not quite fit enough. I came back energised and raring to go, recognising what I’ve already achieved on the long journey to fitness and a healthy weight, but excited about taking it to the next level. And it occurs to me that, as we blearily recover from this extraordinary event, blinking like marmots emerging from our little holes into the light of achievement, that there are two ways this could go. You can see it as a party, good fun at the time but with little to show for it other than headaches and a mess to clear up (and possibly some hazy, drunken memories of Boris dancing to the Spice Girls, no doubt already an Internet meme). Or you can see it as the right kind of holiday – both relaxing and energising at the same time, revealing just how much we are capable of when we are pulled into an endeavour that, unlike so many initiatives that are launched with great fanfare and little substance (the Big Society, anyone?), could actually motivate us to aim higher, and become nicer, healthier and happier people.
Modesty and self-deprecation, those British characteristics, aren’t normally associated with New Yorkers. But if I was putting together my own London 2012 montage, I’d pick Paul Simon to express the national mood of the moment. It may not be a stadium anthem, but it fits like a pair of old sneakers:
If something goes wrong, I’m the first to admit it,
The first to admit it, and the last one to know.
If something goes right, it’s liable to lose me
It’s apt to confuse me, ‘cause it’s such an unusual sight.
Can’t get used to something so right, something so right.