Thursday, 20 September 2012

12 Things I Learnt From The Olympic And Paralympic Games

or 'Yes, I am still going on about this, but so are the weekend supplements, so I think it's kind of OK, especially considering this is not even my actual job.'

WARNING: Long! Really, really long.

Memories... light the corners of my mind. Those aren't my words. They're the words of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. To them I say, 'Alan, Maz, easy for you to say. My mind is jammed full of shopping lists and train times and the birthdays of the individual members of Duran Duran, all languishing under a huge billowing fog of worries, both generalised and specific. How can I possibly fit all those small but significant Olympic and Paralympic memories in there too? All the many things I've learned and the ways I've grown? What if some of them... I don't know... fall out? Because brain specialists tell me this can happen.

Alan and Maz have no answer for me on that. Perhaps it's because Maz doesn't really like being called Maz. She thinks it's disrespectful to abbreviate a triple Oscar-winner. To her, I say, 'You know what, MAZ? Some of the lyrics to Windmills Of Your Mind make NO SENSE AT ALL,' because I don't take rejection very well.

Since Burt Bacharach was no help either, I clearly had to sort this out myself. If only I had some sort of cyber dump where I could record all my favourite strange and inconsequential parts of the last couple of months, things that won't become part of the official Olympic DVD (I've pre-ordered, naturally), before they drift out of my ears and away into the ether? Where oh where could I write about those things and maybe post some photogra.... OH HANG ON.

So here, in no order of rank – which, by the way, isn't a reflection of my views on competitive sport in schools – are the things I learnt from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

1. Cardboard can make you cry.
Oh alright. Anything during the Olympics can make you cry. Or, more specifically, me. Anything at all during the Olympics can make me cry. Any mundane gesture becomes infused with meaning. Any waitress routinely wiping down your café table became a symbol of the clean start we are all making together, a new time of friendliness and warmth and national pride and OH GOD I'M CRYING; any pigeon eating some sick off the pavement somehow represents London's spirit of plucky, stubborn survival and OH GOD I'M CRYING AGAIN. The sign below, which I spotted on a merchandise stand at Eton Dornay, just after Great Britain won their first gold medal, seemed to mark a kind of turning point for me, from the nation feeling kind of indifferent about the Olympics to feeling really very different about them indeed.

2. Be careful what you wish for.
Having front-row seats at the velodrome is amazing! It's a dream come true! All it takes is a lot of cash and many hours spent poring over foreign ticket sites! Look! Show-off photo incoming!

And yet my precious cycling session was marred by nightmarish visions. As I leaned forward to take photos of our two-wheeling heroes, I kept seeing my iphone slipping out of my sweating hand (it is HOT in there), arcing over the barrier and sliding, in sickening slow motion, down the banked track and into the path of Sir Chris Hoy's bike, causing him to wobble, topple and surrender his long-cherished dream of record-breaking gold at his home Olympics, while I crouched down under my seat as the world's media attempted to capture the moron responsible. Oops, sorry, Sir Chris. Butter fingers! Never mind, you've got four other gold medals, right?

3. No One Is Really As Cool As You Think, Not Even Cyclists.
Oh cyclists. You think you're so special with your superhero skin suits and your space age curvy track and your what-is-better-in-the-world-really spectacle of team pursuiters powering along in perfect formation. Look, here they come...

And there they go...

Sometimes I wonder how I can be so amazing at photography.

Still, don't lose heart, mortals. Because my live cycling experience has taught me that the invincible athletes who ride team pursuit for GB like to sit there between rounds in their vests. I'm sure these are very special vests, engineered by scientists to nurture muscle, repel fatigue and, I don't know, do something that really helps with the cycling. But to the uneducated eye, Our Boys look like four elderly men on a hot day at Blackpool sea front, moaning about the sun or the quality of the battered sausages.

Incidentally, if the BBC ever decides to commission a sitcom entitled Last Of The Summer Cyclists, in which elderly characters loosely based on the post-retirement Hoy, Cavendish and Wiggins (or perhaps Clancy, Thomas and Burke in subsequent series) get into hilarious scrapes as they attempt to recreate the team pursuit while riding a tin bath or similar junk-shop find down a steep hill, I would totally watch it.

4. In case there was ever any doubt, I can now confirm that I am emphatically anti-fun.
If you, Olympic-venue public-address announcers, ask me if I'm having a good time, especially in that tone of voice that suggests you are the soul of an over-excited puppy planted into the body of a human, as if in a hilarious inter-species body-swap film comedy that, as far as I know, has never yet been made, but I am totally claiming the idea now if it hasn't because that's box office gold, I am immediately NOT having a good time. Did you never read Just Seventeen? Don't you know that desperation isn't attractive? And, in the five minutes between basketball quarters, I don't want to dance to The Macarena in the hope that a roaming camera may project my mad dance skillz onto the big screen. I just want to sit and talk about the game with my friend, have a drink and, perhaps, go to the toilet (I promise to leave my seat to do this). Similarly, I don't care for playing invisible bongos or even, if I may go so far, actual bongos. NO TO BONGOS OF ANY KIND. This is top-level competitive sport, not Agadoo. What is this obsession with hyping everyone up to the point of nervous and laryngeal collapse, inciting the crowd to cheer louder? No, louder than that. Ooh now, I think you can do better. Now this grandstand. Now that grandstand. Now which grandstand is loudest? NO ONE CARES. IT'S THE OLYMPICS. EVERYONE IS ALREADY PRETTY BLOODY WELL PSYCHED WITHOUT YOUR HELP. JUST LEAVE US ALONE, CAN'T YOU?

I can also personally attest to the awkwardness of sitting next to a male stranger, with whom you have been making pleasant but functional small talk, when 'Kiss Cam' starts roaming around. 'No, it's OK. I've just dropped something down here. Yes, it does look uncannily like I'm hiding under my seat, doesn't it? How funny!' Sodding Kiss Cam! Poor old Pierre de Coubertin must be spinning. (And by this I mean the grave-swivelling outrage, not the exercise class.) Higher, faster, stronger, CRINGIER.

5. You can be patriotic and totally unpatriotic at the same time. Human beings are a rich and confusing species.
Here is a mystery in my life. I, absolutely the least fly woman in Europe, if not the world, can give an impassioned 100% earnest rendition of Grandmaster Flash's White Lines without flinching. I can karaoke the heck out of the most cringeworthy lines of Olivia Newton John's Physical ('I took you to an intimate restaurant... to a suggestive movie') or The Divinyls I Touch Myself without a hint of self-consciousness. Yet I find it impossible to sing God Save The Queen without feeling very uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. At the same time, when I see a man dressed in this outfit, I want to give him a firm handshake and some kind of military salute.

This, like most things, worries me. I think I'm young enough, at 38, to still contest the following sports at Olympic level: golf, archery, fencing, sailing, shooting, equestrianing and triple jump (Yamile Aldama is 40). I will wear my team kit with huge pride. But what will I do on the podium when I inevitably win a gold medal? I will have to pretend that my lips are totally paralysed by Potent Victory Emotions. And does this anthem-aversion mean I am, like, the new Guy Fawkes or something? Probably not because I really like fireworks.

6. Long-distance mega-lens photos aren't always creepy and invasive.
Oh OK, they are. Having a friend in possesion of a swanky camera with a privacy-encroaching zoom is an absolute boon during the more pedestrian sections of the Closing Ceremony. Those cringey cover versions will simply fly past as you hunt down your favourite athletes and discover which international comrades they are having one final crack at before everyone goes home. In addition, it can transform your view of... oh I don't know, let's say Ryan Lochte, just for argument's sake, from this…

…to this

Photo courtesy of Mind Tidying
Technology truly is a wonderful thing.

7. The memories of merchandisers are short.
London 2012 Megastore! You can't reduce Daley Thompson, he's the greatest! Show some respect!

Mo Farah, some day you too will be in the bargain bin. Deal with it.

8. Volunteering is more like a proper job than any proper job I've ever actually had. 
 I mean, honestly, it was all pro-activity and initiative and concentration and application, and really hardly any sitting around having cups of teas and snacking and dicking around on the internet for hours at a time. Even though my role was a long way out of my comfort zone, Sir Alan, I truly loved being able to walk through the empty ExCel arenas after hours, feet sore, but spine tingling.

I loved being there when the corridors had turned from this…

…to this…

I loved sweet-talking the closing-up food concessions into selling me a late-night cup of tea, because – and I really can't stress this enough – the opportunities for idle tea-drinking were extremely limited, then smugly congratulating myself on my silky people skills, only to undermine any newly fostered goodwill by spilling milk all over their newly wiped down counter and having to slope off to the DLR feeling clumsy and sheepish.

And I'm fairly sure I loved going home so tired that I genuinely didn't know whether this particular sight was real or just a weary hallucination.

9. Always have your excuse handy.
If you are standing in the workforce toilets, wearing your volunteer uniform, attempting to take pictures of yourself in the mirror because you deludedly fancy that in your press bib, under the strip lightning, you bear a marked resemblance to Kate Adie in her flak jacket in a war-torn Middle Eastern country – but purple; really, really purple – it might be good to have some kind of sensible explanation ready in case someone walks in, instead of having to try and turn it into some elaborate hair-grooming ritual involving your iPhone.

I don't know what to do with my uniform now it's all over. Obviously I can't throw it away, or give it to charity or engineer any other parting. That would suggest I am something other than a sentimental, hoarding fool. But there is so much of it. And it's so synthetic (as one particularly maternal employee at the uniform pick-up said to me, in a voice that was pure Thora Hird, 'It doesn't breathe, but it washes like a dream'), it's surely a fire hazard to have it stacked up around the house. I'm hoping that if I put it into the oven, it might become like Shrinky Dinks and reduce dramatically in size until it's small enough that I can thread the individual pieces onto a charm bracelet.

10. It's OK to change your mind. Isn't it?
Not so long ago, the 2012 logo and cycloptic mascots were the worst things I had ever seen. Ugly. Unforgivable. An affront to this country's design industry. And now? Well, I seem to have bought this:

And this:

(As well as two Team GB rucksacks, a T-shirt, a set of Olympic-themed commemorative biscuit tins and two tea towels, but that's not important right now.) I can only attribute this about-turn in affection to what my friend Ms H one termed the Alan Hansen Effect, which dictates that given sufficiently intense exposure to a particular individual or object – say, during the endless TV coverage of a major international football tournament – one can develop profoundly warm feelings, possibly sexual, for them. (I loved Hansen from the start, by the way.)

11. The erotic potential of Greco-Roman wresling has been wildy under-estimated. By me, at least.
Here is what I learnt from watching the sport for the first time. I record my findings without comment.

If there has been no score after the second minute of a three-minute round, one of our two competitors gets to choose whether he goes 'top or bottom'. The wrestler who is 'bottom' gets down on all fours. The 'top' wrestler then mounts his opponent from behind and must attempt to 'turn' him while the crowd become increasingly enthused.

12. I am a pretty good bad photographer.
I love this picture.