Just in case you were confused, while this blog post refers extensively to the journey of the Olympic Torch around the UK, to the 2012 Olympic Games and to previous games, I am in no way associated with those games. I am NOT an official sponsor, nor do I hope to profit in any way from the Olympic Games, except to be thrilled, uplifted and inspired by my fellow humans running faster, jumping higher, being stronger.
Back in May, when the Olympic torch started its journey around the UK, I was fairly cynical. I was looking forward to the games being hosted here in the UK. I am very proud for our country. But there were lots of things that didn’t feel right, and in some ways, when I went to see the torch come through Cirencester, I was right.
1. The presence of sponsors was significant and distracting: flags and buses, brightly-dressed staff handing out stuff and whooping the crowds up. It seemed as though it was more about them and how brilliant they were than anything to do with the Olympics, and definitely felt a bit uncomfortable to me, but on the other hand, noone else seemed that bothered. At the start of this there was a great deal of press attention about torch-carriers being asked to pay for their torch, then selling them on eBay. At the time my reaction was “whatever”, and it appears I was not alone.
2. There have been some very odd commercial decisions about ‘celebrity’ torch-bearers. I applaud the use of athletes alongside local celebrities and especially ‘ordinary’ people nominated by their communities. But in Taunton, will.i.am carried the torch. Forgive me, but (a) he’s not from round here, (b) he’s got nothing to do with sport, (c) he’s only in this country because he’s paid to be a TV show host…
My reaction to this is unchanged 2 months on: how would you feel if you’d nominated your mum who’s been a lollipop lady for 50 years and she missed out to will.i.am (with all due respect to Mr .am)? I know why these decisions were made, I just don’t like them much.
3. For all the slick commercialism, the communications on the afternoon were pretty ramshackle. It was a gorgeous hot day (perhaps the last one until this week!), but noone seemed to know what was going on. The torch was apparently running late, but the buzz in the crowd ranged from 20 minutes to 45 minutes. The elderly ladies next to me were getting tired standing for so long in the heat. Noone seemed to know exactly why it was late. Some said it was Didier Drogba in Swindon who delayed things, others just shrugged. Either way, despite the hoards of staff, noone told the crowds anything.
4. Money definitely talks. The restrictions on official sponsors and logos has been astonishing. This exclusivity seems utterly in conflict with the inclusive, universal ambitions of Pierre de Coubertin in this post’s title.
Again, I can understand the aims of these sponsors who have supported the Games with millions of pounds, but the more recent guidelines about the use of language, serving of chips within the Olympic Park and so on are all pretty laughable/unnerving. Luckily, Oddbins are trying to see the funny side.
HOWEVER, the afternoon I spent in Cirencester was enormously uplifting, and reinvigorated my faith in the Olympic Games, held deep from childhood, and why I am twitching like an excited boy waiting for Christmas and the promise of a new bike.
1. The community spirit on display was immense. Apparently 8,000 turned out in Cirencester, roughly equivalent to 50% of the town’s population, or at least a quarter of the local catchment area. The (Grand)Mothers’ Union were set up in the Church porch, distributing free tea and cold drinks to anyone who wanted them on that scorching hot afternoon.
2. The kids were all given the afternoon off school. I feel certain they will remember that day in a way they’ll never remember the final of X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. This mattered, and will live on as An Important Event.
3. Cirencester’s not the most diverse community in the UK, but there were all generations and all classes out on that afternoon, and not just because they had been given the afternoon off and it was sunny.
4. When the torch finally arrived, there was genuine excitement right through the crowd, which had nothing to do with the sponsors’ promotional staff clapping their hands or playing upbeat music over a tannoy from their mega-bus. In Cirencester marketplace we saw a paralympic athlete in a wheelchair, who had been preceded by a teenager. It did feel like everyone mattered and that, for today at least, we weren’t cheering reality TV stars. When the sponsors’ “caravan” arrived, it did remind me of the Tour de France (which, despite my deep love, is also pretty much all about the sponsors) with a big lift for the crowds, then a genuine buzz as it flies past for a few brief seconds.
Some of the most iconic moments from my life have been about the Olympics..
- The epic rivalry between Seb Coe & Steve Ovett in the 1980s
- Watching Daley Thompson rule the world
- Hearing the commentators run out of words, let alone superlatives, to describe Usain Bolt’s 100m world record in Beijing
- Hearing Alan Green at midnight commenting on Steve Redgrave’s 5th Olympic Gold at Sydney in 2000
I can’t wait for the 2012 Olympic Games to start.