Britons relax their stiff upper lips to celebrate Olympics start

Olympics 2012: For Londoners, the Olympics mean showing the world that their beloved country is about much more than phone-hacking tabloids and greedy banks.
A gymnast performs on the vault during training at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Thursday. AP Photo
A gymnast performs on the vault during training at the 2012 Summer Olympics on Thursday. AP Photo

With tonight's opening ceremony,London is once again in the dead centre of the global spotlight. For its people this means showing the world that their beloved country is about so much more than phone-hacking tabloids and greedy banks. It's their day to shine and they will do it.

So this is it. The moment when seven years of planning and testing collide.

At 8.12am today, 12 hours before the Olympic opening ceremony, Big Ben will chime non-stop for three minutes. When it falls silent there will be a collective intake of breath from Londoners, no matter how much nonchalance they have feigned up to this point.

The truth is that no one is unaware of just how much rides on these Olympic Games and their success.

The last time they were staged on British soil, in 1948, it was in a country that had come very close to being broken. Much of London was in bombed-out ruins. Financially it was on its knees. Politically the world was riven. Japan and Germany were banned from competing - a legacy of the Second World War.

Those were the Austerity Games, a show of what Great Britain could do in the face of great adversity, a dusting down, pulling together and getting on with it: all very British.

London 2012 also has been referred to as the Austerity Games, which only proves that Austerity 2012 is a very different beast from Austerity 1948.

Then, buildings from the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 were used as venues. They were still standing not through foresight, but because they were concrete, making demolition costly.

Athletes were housed wherever a berth could be found - 200 of them were put up in army huts in Richmond Park where leisure facilities stretched to a milk bar. The Games cost about £131 million (Dh756.2m) in modern money.

Today the opening and closing ceremonies alone will cost £80m. In all, London 2012 will cost £5.9bn, with a further £6.5bn invested in transport. So anyone who lived through rationing would flinch at talk of "austerity".

But the world is a very different place to the one of seemingly limitless means back in 2005, when Lord Coe and his team nervously awaited the International Olympic Committee's decision.

And for very different reasons, these Games are also a rallying call to the country and beyond. Money is only a fraction of what has been invested in these Games and of what is at stake. This is about reputation and pride and the restoration of both.

Month after month Britain, has been battered by scandal and crises that have hit the establishments in which its people have long taken most pride: their press, their banks and, however much politicians may be lambasted, their political system.

We have seen the phone-hacking scandal tear through all echelons of society, exploding with a mushroom-cloud of shame and malpractice that hovers still.

We have witnessed the tumbling reputations of the Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Northern Rock, Barclays - the list goes on. It has been enough to prompt the Financial Services Authority chairman Adair Turner to say that the UK banks' "culture of cynical greed" is one ripe for change.

There have been an awful lot of times recently when, frankly, Britain hasn't seemed so great at all. So now, more than ever, it must excel.

Which is perhaps why commentators across the world have been perplexed by the British attitude to the Games and their organisers.

Last week the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt joked that if there were a gold medal for grumbling Britain would win it.

The London Mayor Boris Johnson made his own brilliantly bluff bid to call time on detractors, telling them they had, "better put a sock in it, and fast".

The New York Times described the attitude of Londoners as "Eeyor-ish". And of course it has been.

The British have a deep mistrust of swagger or anything too slick. They delight in moaning and tutting. Backhanded compliments are their strongest stroke. Self-deprecation is an art form. But it doesn't mean they don't want to win - or believe that they can.

And it doesn't mean that they don't care. Seven out of 10 Britons believe the Games will have a positive effect on the public mood, with six out of 10 certain that they will enhance the way Britain is viewed by the world.

Doubtless among their numbers were those who gleefully groaned when the first athletes' bus became lost on the way to the Olympic Village.

Doubtless they guffawed at the image of the Olympic torch disappearing beneath a set of rapids to emerge, inevitably snuffed out, after some genius thought it jolly to take it on a white-water canoeing course in Hertfordshire, England.

But it is one thing for the British to hold themselves and their leaders to account, and quite another for anybody else to do so. London, Britain, cares very much that all goes well.

The more something matters, the more the British complain and pick holes until convinced that, yes, this is fit for purpose.

And to be honest, Lord Coe and his team have yet to fully convince. Three and a half thousand troops had to be drafted in at the last minute when G4S, the private security firm hired to police the Games, admitted it couldn't recruit the necessary numbers.

The excessive reverence shown towards sponsors, and the punitive measures implemented to protect their rights has led to London 2012 being labelled the Censorship Games.

Corner cafes with the affront to display their bagels in the form of the Olympic rings have been threatened with prosecution.

Enterprising shopkeepers thinking they might come up with Olympic offers, or restaurateurs dreaming of Olympic menus have been paid a visit by the rather sinister sounding "enforcement officers", to disabuse them of any such notion.

All companies and individuals, apart from official sponsors, are banned from using the Olympic name, rings, motto and logo, as well as associated words such as "twenty twelve" in conjunction with words such as "Gold" and "London".

Mr Johnson has branded it "insanity". Even Michael Payne, the former IOC marketing director who introduced major sponsorship to the Games, has said this time around the organisers have gone too far to protect sponsors.

But to view the criticisms of such nonsense as somehow anti-British or anti-Olympic is to misunderstand the way the British get their shop - in this case, literally - in order.

Already there have been head-in-hands moments: showing South Korea's flag instead of North Korea's at a women's football match in Hampden Park, Scotland; the Emirates Cable Car across the Thames breaking down on Wednesday because it was too hot; and transport in general continuing to be chaotic.

But transport and immigration workers who threatened to strike or work to rule during the Games have been berated by all. Yesterday immigration union bosses backed down.

That their threats had been so roundly condemned is proof that the underlying, and rapidly surfacing, mood of the country is one of pride and hope.

You can see it in the nervous advertisements across town telling Londoners: "The national anthem won't sing itself. Don't Fly." And this is from British Airways.

You can see it in the gaggles of eager Olympic Ambassadors who for days have massed around London, 70,000 of them in their pink T-shirts and comfortable shoes. They carry their maps and water bottles like amiable inner-city ramblers. They're just dying to be of some use.

So are the Locog officials who bustle around venues, festooned with their passes and accreditation, permanently on the move and gripped by a "Did I leave the iron on?" anxiety.

The final touches are being made. All around the Olympic Park tracts of concrete have been covered in artificial grass and shaded with cream canvas canopies as sponsors stake their claim to chunks of East London, branding it and turning it into an oddly corporate vision of rural England.

Meanwhile, the Olympic gold medallist and Locog chairman Lord Coe has been applauding his team's efforts at every opportunity.

His message is clear: the time has come to stop griping and start grinning. Stiffen that upper lip and get on with it.

If it rains it rains - it didn't stop the choir singing at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, although cupcakes gave way next to soggy sandwiches and teacups filled with rainwater.

Lord Coe takes comfort in his experience of working through the Sydney Olympics, recalling: "The morning of the opening ceremony, one of the Australian papers suggested that the population of that great sporting nation should be holding their heads in shame.

"By the time we got to the closing ceremony, of course, it was a very different story. Sydney gave the world arguably the best Games ever."

Still, Lord Coe has admitted he struggles to control "the insatiable desire to start every explanation to your inquisitor with: 'Lighten up'."

And barring disaster they will - just as soon as the Games begin.

Published: July 27, 2012 04:00 AM


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