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Euphoria in the London Games

August 06, 2012

I’ve been watching the Olympics on BBC’s full-spectrum coverage that allows viewers to switch to any competition in real time. And frankly, after a week of swimming, diving, tennis, sailing, rowing, canoeing and beach volleyball, I have had enough.

This is clearly a minority view, though. Media coverage is relentless, as is the encouragement in and out of the Olympics stadia for ‘Team GB’. Normally, Brits are quite restrained about supporting their teams and individual sportsmen and women in international competitions. It must be said that this restraint is based on low expectations.

But in the London Olympics, supporters have discarded their traditional self-deprecation and irony for an unprecedented outburst of nationalistic exuberance and over-the-top enthusiasm that seems more American than British. Medal winners are accorded heroic status, and normally sober journalists reduced to gibbering jelly in their presence.

To be fair, Brits have much to cheer about: ever since London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics seven years ago, most people have been predicting disaster. Sceptics have been moaning about the costs in a recession-hit country. Others anticipated traffic gridlock. A few days before the opening, G4S, the private company providing security guards, confessed that it would not be able to furnish the number it had promised. The army had to be called in to make up the shortfall.

However, such was the magic of Danny Boyle’s zany, creative opening ceremony that all doubts have been put aside, and almost all the naysayers silenced. I watched enchanted as the colourful spectacle unfolded with thousands of participants, most of them volunteers, going through their paces. Although the show cost 27 million pounds, most Brits think it was worth every penny.

I noticed that in the singing and dancing routines, there were a number of Brits of African and West Indian origin, and wondered where the desis from the Subcontinent were. After all, they represent a sizeable chunk of the immigrant population, so one could have expected some representation. This was even truer of the British Olympics contingent that marched past right at the end: I could spot no sportsmen or women of Sub-continental origin at all.

Of course this reflects our region’s standing in world sports generally. But while we have poverty and lack of training facilities in the Subcontinent to fall back on, this excuse is not valid in the UK where students are encouraged to play games. If kids from other backgrounds can excel at this level, why can’t we?

However, it is not entirely accurate that all students have equal access to sports facilities in the UK. As several journalists and sports officials have pointed out, many Olympic events only feature British participants educated in private schools because state schools just don’t have the facilities. Some private schools (perversely known as public schools in the UK) have as many as 400 acres of playing fields. After the first week of the Olympics, fully half of all British medal winners attended fee-paying institutions.

The Brits have done especially well at events like riding, sailing, cycling and rowing, prompting one journalist to quip that Team GB is good at sports that allow them to sit down. Needless to say, none of them are offered at state schools.

Although it’s been quite cool over the last week, athletes have not been very warmly dressed. In fact, I don’t recall such skimpy outfits worn by sportswomen in previous Olympics. At the beach volleyball event, even in the rain, girls wear bikinis, prompting one columnist to compare them with “glistening otters”. One more reason why there are hardly any women competing from the Muslim world.

The physical reality is that given the extraordinary standards and the keen competition, any superfluous piece of garment is swiftly discarded to gain the slightest advantage. The difference between athletes is now measured in fractions of seconds. Given traditionally conservative attitudes in most of the Muslim world, it seems unlikely that women will play any significant role in most events at the Olympics in the foreseeable future.

One contentious issue has been the official warning to London residents to stay away from the city centre for the duration of the Games. This announcement has been repeated on the sound system of public transport, with the charismatic mayor, Boris Johnson, urging Londoners not to visit major shopping districts. Some offices have allowed their workers to work from home. This has resulted in a half-deserted London with empty shops, restaurants and theatres.

Earlier, the Olympics had been sold to the public as being good for business. But what’s good for retailers might have been disastrous for the transport system. As it is, underground trains are carrying record numbers of passengers to and from the Olympics sites. If shoppers had also been on board, we might well have witnessed the kind of traffic logjams many had feared.

One thing the Games have done is to completely dominate the news cycle. Anyone looking at the world through the eyes of the British media could be excused for thinking it had come to a complete halt for the duration of the London Olympics. Only the deteriorating situation in Syria has managed to get some coverage. This, of course, is very useful for the coalition government which is caught up in a serious division over important legislation to reform the House of Lords, Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber. Also forgotten in the euphoria are the double-dip recession, and the eurozone crisis that is devastating prospects of economic recovery.

No doubt the hangover will come after the end of the Games. But meanwhile, Brits deserve to enjoy their place in the sun, even though it has been very cloudy for months. Against the gloomy forecasts, not only have the buildings and the infrastructure been completed in time and within budget, the Games are running very smoothly with barely a hitch.

Above all, Team GB are performing well, with more medals so far than expected. But as far as I’m concerned, I have switched to the England- South Africa Test match as there’s only so much hysterical triumphalism I can stand.