For well over two weeks now, I've had a heavy stone sitting in my stomach. And it is not just the late-night BK Whopper meal I ate on the way home from the Greco-Roman wrestling. BA-DUM!
It is because very soon [press play on the 100 Most Wistful Ballads In The World That Are Also Suitable For Soundtracking A Sporting Montage… Ever! CD about now] there will be a time when the London Olympics are not on the way, are not about to happen, are not happening. Only 12 days of Paralympic heroics remain between now and Normal Life flatlining ahead of us – a grey time when the person in the cubicle next to me in the toilets at St Pancras at 11pm is not audibly humming the music to Chariots Of Fire; a time when it doesn't seem perfectly run-of-the-mill to see a man eating lasagne and salad in the John Lewis cafe in full red, white and blue face paint and a matching bubble wig with a flag draped around his shoulders; a time when beaming strangers in red and purple manmade fibres do not queue up to high-five you just for sitting in a plastic seat for two hours or walking towards a train station in a peaceful crowd formation.
These four words I might have said in this blog more than any others: I love the Olympics. My heart, my soul, quite a lot of my inheritance… all this and more went into finding tickets. I've rarely worked harder at anything, apart from my Fox And The Hound sticker book in the early 80s (full up, no repeats). It baffles people – I am nothing if not a mercurial yet highly charismatic enigma – but there's really nothing I'd rather have spent my money on. Cars bore me and I have too many clothes (only lately, in moving house, have I come to the startling realisation that this is possible. Nothing quenches a passion like packing 105 coathangers). Australia is nice, so they say; Thailand too, but really I've only ever wanted to go to the Olympics. They're my
round-the-world cruise, my all-inclusive five-star getaway with novelty cocktails on a lounger at sunset.
Sometimes people ask me what it is I love so much about the Olympics
and I turn to them and say: 'WHAT A RIDICULOUS QUESTION. WHY ARE WE EVEN
It's simple: the Olympics
has the best stories. Obsession, sacrifice, vengeance, loss, triumph
and really attractive people in tight outfits. All happening at a high-pressure, odds-lengthening, last-chance-heavy interval of once every four years. And if you can't buy into
that, you might want to ask yourself whether life as a member of the
human race is really for you. The Olympics are Star Wars and Moby Dick.
They might not quite be Romeo & Juliet – and Jason Kenny and Laura Trott are probably hoping that remains the case – but let's think of showjumper
Scott Brash hoping his gold medal would help him pull women,
and more epicly (yes, definitely a word, thanks) German weightlifter
Matthias Steiner in Beijing, winning the gold medal he'd promised to his
wife who died in a car accident a year before. Steiner
took a photo of her on to the victory podium – watch, weep and do some
GCSE German listening comprehension here.
During any other Olympics, I would have been developing sofa sores and square eyes, bingeing on the BBC, catching each highlights package at least three times until I could turn the sound off and provide the commentary myself verbatim. This time, I was there, Actually Literally There, for loads of it, seeing the Real Thing in front of me and in no other medium. On the middle weekend, and a rare day off, I went to a birthday barbecue where one friend surveyed my hollow eyes, unwashed clothing and sunburnt extremities and enquired whether I had actually been living feral in the Olympic Park. I had not, mostly because of all the excellent and thorough security measures that had been put in place to prevent this and, oh yes, because I HATE CAMPING – but it often felt like it. It was dreamlike. But not quite in the way I was expecting. I'm not sure whether it's an indication of my general grasp on reality, or whether I'm trying to say something profound about our relationship with the digital age – oh wait, no, it's not that; this is cheap sentiment and whimsical comparison; please move elsewhere for penetrating insight – but it's very strange that watching these events live somehow seemed less real than watching them on TV.
I saw a lot of incredible achievement, of the kind it is a privilege to share the same microclimate with, to eat over-priced tiny tubs of Pringles alongside, to shout raucously at in a voice you are surprised to find you own. Pure magic is happening in front of you, but if you have a suspicious nature like me, you doubt that you're really there witnessing it. On August 1st, I was at Eton Dornay watching Stanning & Glover (opticians? solicitors? New Faces double act?) win Britain's first gold medal. But on the way home, I
barely thought of them. I did, however, think of the British men's eight crew. I couldn't stop. They had dismissed the prospect of a certain silver
medal to gamble for gold, only to fall short and end up with utter despair – or bronze, as the madly competitive sometimes call it. I watched through my binoculars (only a little less creepy than it sounds) as they remained adrift in their boat a
good 20 minutes after the event had finished, slumped forward with heads in hands, or lying
back, prostrate with pain, eventually crawling on to dry land like they'd fought in a war. That did seem real – horribly so.
(Ideally, all the time Steve Redgrave spent on the water would have triggered a marine metamorphosis after he retired, transforming him into some kind of octopus – thus able to offer one arm to each member of the GB eight crew for hugging, holding up or back-rubbing anyone spewing off the end of the jetty. I guess evolution is not the miracle we all think.)
I know some people believe rowing to be strictly the preserve of poshos who only practise on the river in order to simultaneously do their training and pluck out swans for their servants to roast for lunch, but for me it is the perfect visual representation of the Olympics effort. Rowers are so utterly broken – physically sick and emotionally spent – by the end of their event that it is distressing just to watch. The winners have the perfect tonic of course, but everyone else? Well, if you tuned into the post-race interview with Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, you will forever be haunted by the terrible, dark things you saw that day – it was, I would say, only marginally less harrowing than the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Those few minutes of agony seemed pretty real too. And I think it's because failure is probably more familiar to the majority than triumph. Most of us don't win, not in that way. We lead small lives, in jobs we tolerate, bumbling along. Maybe that's why the defeats resonated with me more than the victories. Or maybe I'm just quite miserable. It's probably that.
Of course, I feel guilty for questioning my experience of the triumphs I was lucky enough to see, for failing to fully absorb their scale and reality when they were right there in front of me. But when you've been waiting for something as long as I have (28 years, since Los Angeles), I think it's hard to make it truly meaningful when it finally happens. How can you possibly, definitively, drink every last bit in? I've heard people say this about
their weddings, but I wouldn't know about that as I am an unmarried Daily Mail statistic.
But it's probably not good to over-analyse – which, for me, is like saying, 'Could you just try to ease up on the breathing in and out?' It's important not to examine those loud, bright moments of ecstacy too much in case you somehow rub all their gloss away, but I suppose you just have to know that they will somehow seep inside you and stay there, along with all the other good things that have ever happened in your life, ready to shore you up in grimmer times.
Farah, Ennis, Rutherford, Hoy, Grainger… they are the ones I will remember in 40 years' time, as I watch my worn-out Opening Ceremony DVD on repeat, Havisham-like, in my care home. Those who didn't come first, I suppose I may forget – along with my own name and where I live. Olympians, of course, have known this all along. I am just working it out.
Coming as soon as I get round it: My top xx [to be filled in when I've actually written it and counted them] first-hand Olympic memories, including cyclists in vests, anthem inhibition and references to the Teenage Fanclub song Tears Are Cool.
38. QUEEN ELIZABETH OLYMPIC PARK, LONDON
9 months ago