Saturday, 23 April 2011

ALERT: Earnest gag-free Olympic self-indulgence, in which I can't decide whether the Olympics should be singular or plural

A couple of weeks ago, I found my new favourite view in London:

Waterloo Bridge From The Bus At Night Time is feeling pretty bloody second best these days, let me tell you. My new No 1 is from a cafe that overlooks the Olympic-park-in-progress. With my mania for all things Olympic, I don't know why I haven't been there before, but that is the joy of London. It's full of places you don't have to visit because they're on your doorstep and you could go and see them any time you want.

Beside what is essentially a building site with promise, an enclave of British Day Out seems to have cropped up. Parties of school children trickle past. Cyclists flit by at high speed, causing those of a nervous disposition – I am foremost among their number– considerable anxiety. Get off and walk, you hooligans, people are trying to drink lattes here. The hale-and-hearty post-middle-aged stride along purposefully, occasionally stopping to peel off their rucksacks and unwrap the kind of tinfoil-clad packed lunches that have yet to embrace the modish likes of hummus and home-made lentil salad:

I don't mind telling you, the whole spectacle swelled my heart, then almost broke it. I'm not totally sure why.

But I know this – and bale out now, cynics; seriously, go and read some nihilistic free verse or something, because here comes the syrup – the Olympics breathes the kind of excitement into me that I sometimes think I definitively and permanently exhaled during my teenage years. I feel as though it's always been there in my life, like my family, or my best friends, or a football team.

That's no twee overstatement. It's a simple fact. I'm a fresh-faced 37 and the Olympics are at least 2000. Of course they've always been there. Admittedly, once every four years is not a particularly great meet-up rate (I have cousins on the other side of the world who I see more regularly than that) but when it happens, it's like we've never been apart.

Cynics, don't make that face. I warned you.

I have a vague recollection of the Moscow Games, but Los Angeles in 1984 is the first I really remember. I was 10. There are phrases from the television commentary that I think will still be in my head even when my own name, my way home and the importance of personal hygiene is not: Carl Lewis taking the final relay leg to win his fourth gold medal ('And the big man has the baton!') and
Daley Thompson's decathlon ('It's a better one... It's a better one... It's a better one... It's a better one!').

When London was bidding for the Games, I remember calculating how old I would be if/when they took place. I also calculated how old my dad would be. I always imagined if the Games ever rolled into my town, it would be him I would go with. Every summer, during my school years, he would drive my mum, my brother and I from our home in Norfolk to Crystal Palace, to the international athletics grand prix. I remember the agitation of being trapped in the 6pm south-London traffic on the way there. I remember seeing enormous bails of blank paper waiting to be news-printed in glass-walled presses somewhere north-east of the city on the way home. I now live incredibly close to the stadium that we used to drive three hours to get to, yet I rarely visit. (See paragraph two.)

When the games were awarded to London, on 6 July 2005, my colleagues and I stood around a TV set in the office, caught up in the excitement and blinking back Grade A Olympic Emotion* (me) or clutching on to an excuse not to do any work (some other, stupid people).

24 hours later, we were standing around the same TV set in the same office, watching Tony Blair give a hastily arranged address to the nation and frantically trying to contact friends and colleagues to make sure they weren't on that bus or those three tube trains.

Then, two months later, my dad died.

I don't remember too much about those weeks between the start of July and early September. Except I knew there was something different about that summer. You never see it coming, I don't think, but I'm convinced I could sense something creeping up behind me, waiting to shove me off the Precipice Of Pretty Much OK into The Pit Of Really Hard, Horrible, Grown-up Stuff.

I do know how lucky I am that nothing like that had happened to me before.

But something I do recall from that time, amid the
isolated flashes of trauma, is a sense of disbelief that any of those extraordinary, enormous events were actually happening. At the time, the over-riding emotion I felt about any of them was that it was all just so... weird. For those months and quite a few immediately afterwards, everything was confusing and awful. But slowly, the Difficult Things become assimilated into your older, sadder self and you shuffle forwards.

The reality of the Olympics was probably the slowest concept to take hold. It pretty much got bumped, emotion-wise. But a couple of weeks ago, there was the evidence in front of me. The Games are growing three-dimensionally before our very eyes, in steel and brick and mud and access roads. Despite the skeptics, who seem to be positively willing the budget to be bust apart and the deadlines to be broken, they are Definitely Happening.

And seeing the stadium almost at touching distance (definitely at touching distance if I was, like, Mr Tickle – or maybe Peter Crouch), I couldn't help but think of Now and Then (the popular terms relating to time, not the coming-of-age chick flick with Demi Moore) – how life was before that summer, and what came after, and also what didn't.

My dad would have been thrilled by the Olympic site and its construction. He would have found any excuse to drive us around it, tirelessly seeking the best vantage point, revving and reversing until we were car sick, marvelling at the curved roof of the velodrome, watching the cranes, walking into places he wasn't meant to go, attempting to befriend frowning security guards in neon coats. Since he died, I've never had a strong sense of my dad being 'with me', like people who go on about that kind of thing always seem to. He's never appeared in a dream with the answers I am seeking – like the reason why the lamps in my flat keep fusing – and he's never apparated in front of me in TK Maxx, pointing the way towards a brilliantly bargainous and perfectly fitting ChloĆ© dress. I'm five years stronger now, but at times like this, despite my excitement, my chest almost bursts with the sense of him not being there. Not scowling at the cyclists cutting him up on the path. Not eating a hard boiled egg unwrapped from tin foil.

And while I often imagined sitting in the stadium's cheap seats next to my Dad, I'm sure that on occasion I probably also imagined attending the Games with an adorable, curly-haired child or two of my own, hoping their tiny souls would absorb the privilege and the atmosphere, while I smiled beatifically, concealing how peeved I felt at shelling out £5 per branded Olympic ice cream and having to take them to the toilet just before some crucial lap or throw. While this is by no means biologically impossible, it's looking unlikely. I waited a long time for the Olympics to come to London – and they did. There's other things I've waited a long time for, and I'm still waiting.

But in my dad's absence, I visited the Olympic park with my friend Mrs G and my adorable curly-haired godchild Sonny – even if he's a little young for ice cream and he wasn't revealing his most adorable side on the day we visited. Instead, he rolled around on the concrete pathway doing angry crying for the best part of an hour and bellowing 'NOOOOOO!' at any attempts to mollify him, until passers-by started looking anxiously at us, wondering whether they should intercede.

Sonny is just another way in which things have changed since London won the Games. But a happy way. Ivy, his older sister, is another. She's 5 now, and I imagine she might have high-fived my dad on the way past him in some celestial Arrivals/Departures hall.

And then there's their mum, my friend, Mrs G. Like many of my friends, she was there before and since, and will carry on being there. They're Olympic, my friends – and yes, cynics, I am actually saying this. Not expensive and excessively sweaty and fond of ugly mascots. No. Constant, and getting closer all the time. And only a normal amount of sweaty.

* It is my intention, at some point in the future, to write a post classifying the various grades of Olympic Emotion. You probably know better than to hold your breath for it.


Shrimptowers said...

You bugger. You made me cry and I don't even know you or your dad.

Alison Cross said...

It was very weird - the elation at securing the games, followed so quickly by the brutality of the bombings.

I would very much like to share a boiled egg with you whilst sitting overlooking the olympic stadium.

Not in a gay way, you understand.

Lovely post :-)

Ali x

jaljen said...

Plural. I presume on account of the collocation with Games. Therefore "Olympics" to substitute for the complete phrase?

Olympic was a sister-ship to the Titanic.

I laughed immoderately at TwentyTwelve on the BBC. It may not however have appealed to you given your views as expressed above...

Colleen said...

Great post, and what an awesome dad.

I did my Olympic ticket allocation earlier today, I've got everything crossed!

Ian B said...

Great post, Miss Jones.

Anonymous said...

Great post Miss Jones, worth the couple of weeks wait. Mr T x

Stand UP for Japan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You know i'm Mrs G, right, and not Stand Up for Japan.. or pOlympic for that matter.

Anonymous said...

Oh no now my comment above makes no sense and i've only just realised.

I was logged in as Stand up for Japan, see, and commented that I was very proud to be your pOlympic friend, tried to delete due to misspelling and strange name, and thought it hadn't worked.

Anyway, what i'd like to say is that as Mrs G, I'm proud to be your Olympic friend, and i'm sorry that my son's Olympic efforts at angry crying impinged on your Olympic cafe experience, particularly now i realise just how poignant it was for you. Love you.. Mrs G

Anonymous said...

A little tear just rolled into my bowl of porridge, beautiful post!