“Sport has no language or barrier, it’s the easiest way to communicate in general, and I think it’s the best tool for people to create opportunities, friendships, peace, and everything else.”
[Nadia Comaneci, the first Olympic gymnast ever to score a perfect 10 and winner of 3 gold medals in the 1976 Montreal Olympics]
One could wholly dismiss the Olympics for simply being a major sporting spectacle. 2 weeks of aggressive TV watching with the pretense that we’re all suddenly experts in the field. Yet to many it’s where dreams are both born and made. Sadly, I have reluctantly come to the realisation that I have as much luck of being awarded an Olympic gold medal as I have an Oscar statuette, but to watch the emotions and tears of people accomplishing their ultimate goals is always heart wrenching to say the least. On a social level you could go as far as to say that it has changed us mostly for the better. In this world forum the discriminations of each nation are brought forward and laid bare. When we remember how the Olympic movement increased support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, how the growth of the Paralympic Movement has impacted on the consideration of the disabled across the globe, how the Australians were forced to re-assess their treatment of the Aborigines and Indians with their regionalism issues, and with the anti-doping campaign and Olympic Truce Foundation, – can we readily admit that the Olympics is just entertaining TV fodder? No, it is the world’s stage where all competing nations ‘show their hand’ and hopefully that fairness pervades and the glorious conquer all. But yes, it’s also about who wins the most prizes.
London is the first city to host the Olympics for the third time. The first was held in 1908 with 22 nations contesting 24 sporting disciplines such as hockey, jeu de paume, lacrosse, polo, rackets and tug of war, of which you might be amused to know that Great Britain won all gold, silver and bronze medals. Apart from helping to initiate the rules standard and to select judges from different countries, these games were marred by quarrelsome nations: the US flag bearer refused to dip the flag to King Edward VII, with a group belief that “this flag dips for no earthly king”; the Irish did not like competing as part of the United Kingdom, despite still being part of it; the Finnish team were at the time part of the Russian Empire and ordered to march at the opening ceremony under the Russian flag; both the Swedish and US flags were not displayed above the stadium so the whole Swedish team refused to attend the opening ceremony; and many say this is another factor as to why the Americans refused to dip their flag to our King. The White City stadium was a wonder for its age and was built for £60,000 within 2 years. The final tally saw Great Britain the clear winners with 56 gold medals with the US in 2nd with 23 and Sweden in 3rd with 8. The White City site is now home to the BBC with the only evidence being the marathon finishing line.
[images courtesy of Getty]
Two World Wars later saw the Olympics return after a 12-year absence for the games in 1948 in what became known as the ‘Austerity Games’. Still reeling amongst the rubble caused by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and the propaganda machine that was the 1936 Berlin games, King George VI took this as an opportunity to restore fairness and pride amongst the nations that came. Germany and Japan were both conspicuous in their absence (simply ‘not invited’). With rations on eggs, milk and cheese still in place and their ‘mend and make-do’ mentality still in check, the athletes were encouraged to bring their own food and offer any surplus to hospitals. They ate cheese sandwiches, wore homemade shorts, brought their own towels and slept in wooden army huts. The Americans had enriched white flour and steak flown in daily, while the French had regular shipments of Claret. Despite a few laughable moments, – where a handful of teams were greeted by the wrong anthem, the Australian teams kit was stolen by striking dock workers, the Union flag disappearing just before the opening ceremony, and miscast advertising slots for companies such as Guinness, Ovaltine and Craven A cigarettes, – nevertheless came together in its celebration of peace. The stadium stood where the new Wembley stadium has been erected, with the only remnant being the broadcasting house and the Olympic walkway between the stadium and the train station. Costing £750,000 to put on, the games even managed to turn a small profit.
[images courtesy of the BBC]
And what of the current 2012 London Olympics? London has had 7 years to prepare since the news broke on the 6th of July 2005. The elation of our city was abruptly silenced the very next day with the 7/7 bombings that killed 52 and injured hundreds more on the public transport system. But doing what Londoners do best is brush off the dust and march onward. These 7 years have brought forward discussion and many a heated debate on how best to tame our feral city. On whether the transport system will be able to cope with the huge influx of athletes and tourists is yet to be answered. (Though already there have been reports of athletes lost for hours on the muddled and unruly London road system.) Advertising slots have yet again been given to ‘unsuitables’, (Coca-Cola, Cadbury’s and McDonald’s, who has even gone so far as to get the Olympic committee to ban any other food vendor within the Olympic Park from selling the humble chip. Only to be outdone by Visa that states that official Olympic t-shirts can only be obtained with a Visa card.) thus proving that the flip side to the Olympics is not entirely deep-rooted in promoting sport, fairness and healthy living. Also, businesses across the capital not directly related to the games now have to employ an extra body to stay overnight and receive deliveries that can only be transported between the hours of 10pm and 6am, which in these hard times could demonstrate to be a crippling factor over the summer months. And yet, with the ongoing struggle for gender equality, Saudi Arabia has at last caved in to public outcry and along with Qatar and Brunei will send two women to compete in the games for the very first time. An almighty yet small step for mankind. Sebastian Coe has vigorously fought for these Olympics to not make the same mistakes of those before. The London Olympic legacy has not only regenerated a disused and poor part of the city but intends for the stadium to be in full use after the games, the venues have been designed to be as sustainable as possible, the athletes quarters will be transformed into affordable housing and there are even real talks about moving the basketball stadium to Brazil for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games. For a city to provide venues for 26 different sports, including 4 different aquatic events, 4 different boating events, four different cycling events and 3 different equestrian events, as well as housing for the thousands of athletes, officials and a centre for broadcasting, it is often the case that Olympic venues struggle to find purpose beyond the games, thus proving a massive waste on taxpayers’ money. Of the 31 venues built in Beijing, only 8 were temporary and the investment was so huge that it brought up the price of steel across the globe, affecting all major construction projects. Despite Beijing showing the world possibly the most splendid games the world has seen, they used it as a power tool and many of the remaining venues are now wasting to ruin. London is hoping to take a very different and progressive route, taking conscious steps as it goes.
An anthropologist once put it that the Games have done their part in “making the world a little safer for differences”. As tolerant as a city can ever get, London celebrates its diversity and the London Olympic legacy hopes to encourage this throughout the world. And so, as the circus rolls into town and the sun finally shows its fashionably late head can we apprehensively say, – “camera, lights, and action…”