x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Grumpy old Britain swept off its feet by Olympic spectacle

Danny Boyle's opening ceremony – crystallising everything that has made modern Britain what it is today – stole the hearts of even the most cynical of spectators.

Like most Londoners, I'd approached the 2012 Olympics with a lack of interest bordering on cynicism. I moaned along with the best of them about this absurd, bloated, economically catastrophic festival of sport that was about to descend on us.

After all, who were we kidding? Those of us who live here knew that London, a notoriously overcrowded city, would never cope. The trains wouldn't work, the stadiums wouldn't be ready, public-service workers would go on strike, the rain would fall endlessly and, when it was over, frazzled residents would find themselves paying for the whole overblown fandango for the next 30 years.

So convinced was I of the utter folly that when my neighbours said they had bought tickets for the opening ceremony at more than £150 (Dh860) each, it was all I could do to keep from shaking my head in pity.

But that disappeared in the course of little more than 20 minutes. Danny Boyle's opening ceremony - crystallising everything (good and ill) that has made modern Britain what it is today - stole the hearts of the nation.

The effect on the country was instant and mesmerising. If you'd told me that I'd be blubbing like an idiot at the sight of thousands of mud-smeared factory workers and a phalanx of industrial chimneys, I would have called you a fool. Yet long before Queen Elizabeth and James Bond made their spectacular entrances by parachute, Boyle's audacious and self-deprecating celebration of Britain in all of its chaos and absurdity had fired a metaphorical starting pistol. Suddenly Great Britain "got" the Olympics.

By the next morning, the legions of "gloomsters" (as described by London mayor Boris Johnson) had vanished. When I met my neighbours in the street, still bleary-eyed but with smiles stitched across their faces as wide as the Thames, pity had been replaced by awe. What had it been like to be there in person, I wondered? "It was the best night of my life," was their youngest son's response. I could well believe it.

In the days since, the Games have unfurled like some magnificent bloom. Now the very idea that we might have ever doubted the power to transform and transcend seems absurd. Of course, there have been the occasional setbacks and logistical howlers - how could there not be in a Games that had Mr Bean featured in the opening ceremony?

The projection of the South Korean flag on a giant screen to mark the arrival of the North Korean women's football team will live long in memory. So will the image of the grinning stowaway who joined the ranks of the Indian squad during the procession. But for all that, London has risen to the challenge with flair and style.

The stadiums have proved magnificent, the facilities unparalleled, the sun has (more or less) shone, and most crucially the capital's transport system is working. The setting of many of the events, in particular Lord's Cricket Ground for archery and Horse Guards Parade for beach volleyball, has provided a thrilling backdrop to the sport.

More wonderfully still, the Games have been staffed by a vast army of volunteers on every street corner and intersection, offering help and directions, and ensuring even the most bewildered tourists arrive safely at their destinations.

When Prime Minister David Cameron came to office in 2010 he was much ridiculed for espousing the notion of "the big society", in which people asked themselves: "Can I take responsibility? Can I do more?'

The legion of helpers at London 2012 has proved there may be a method in his madness.

The Games are putting a smile on everyone's face. The capital has resembled a huge international jamboree over the last few days, and it's been a pleasure to be part of it. Kazakhs mingle freely with Koreans, Mexicans with Moldovans, and seemingly every nation in between. They've even stuck a Union Jack hat on Lord Nelson at the top of his column in Trafalgar Square.

If that doesn't betoken a nation shaking off it's legendary reserve, I don't know what does.

Best of all, the 2012 Games have proved again the adage that the Olympic ideal can, at its best, unite nations that normally cross the road to avoid one another. While the world may seem a dangerous and forbidding place, all men are basically the same - at least if you give them some beach volleyball to watch.

 

Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins