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A summer like no other

September 9, 2012

When awarded the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, London went bananas. For one day. Until the Games actually started, that excitement was replaced by disdain for the logo, dismay at the cost and disbelief that Great Britain would be able to deliver the greatest show on Earth. How exactly did whinging poms transform into welcoming hosts – quite literally, overnight?

1. The Games under-promised and over-delivered

The first rule of customer service demonstrated with alacrity. Every newspaper I picked up had an advert telling me to Get Ahead of the Games by travelling to work at a different time or not to bother at all. The onslaught of athletes, officials and spectators was going to grind London to a screeching halt. Even tickets came with a disclaimer: “arrive at your event EARLY or you will miss EVERYTHING”.

What a load of hype.

For the first time since I was a child fascinated with the train guard who got to press the buttons on the Northern Line, I ENJOYED getting the Underground. There wasn’t the noise of overpriced headphones leaking underwhelming music, there was the chatter of families speaking in languages I can’t understand but saying destinations I have become all to familiar with:

“blah blah blah blah Bank blah blah blah blah Stratford blah blah blah West Ham”.

There were British families from all over the place on their way to their big day out, happily getting their money’s worth from the Jubilee flags and easily eschewing the Games’ security measures by carefully measuring out their vodka into separate 100ml containers.

The best journeys were in the evenings, on my way home. Children curled up in parents’ laps, fast asleep in their Team GB treads and grandparents in baseball caps; a good time really was had by all.

G4S did us a favour by screwing up. Instead of being touched up by a 16 year old in Reebok classics, members of the RAF, Navy and Royal Marines were on hand to give spectators a pat down.

I wouldn’t dare suggest the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games had any kind of control over the weather, I will say it was quite handy that it rained solidly for the whole of 2012 until the night of 26 June. When the sun finally came out, I was beside myself and it seems, so was the nation.

We got none, or at least, very little of the disaster that was promised. We got lots of the organisation, preparation, gold friggin medals and pitch perfect delivery – all things that we never heard about before.  A masterstroke!

2. Brainwashing, pure and simple

Danny Boyles Opening Ceremony was a big hot mess to everyone outside of Britain. Beds that spell out “NHS”? Did they spell out “astromomy” in Beijing? Indeed, the message I took away from that particular noise-fest is that Britain invented everything that matters in the world today, including prog-rock, secret agents, prissy footballers and self deprecation. And everything we didn’t invent, we re-invented (Olympic Cauldrons will never be the same again). Using Mr Bean was strangely appropriate.

If you didn’t find at least one thing to like in the Opening Ceremony, you would have been considered mad. One can’t disagree with the sheer balls it took to convince the Queen to pretend to enter the stadium by helicopter.

It was a clever concept, the opening ceremony. Instead of impressing the world, they impressed the people closer to home. We filled the Tube, we occupied the stadium. We actually paid for the show! Keep us happy, and we’ll smile for the cameras.  I really believe this show, however odd, shut up the naysayers and satisfied the enthusiasts.

The opening ceremony was strange, funny, entertaining and moving in equal measure. The flag bearers provided the best moment until they were bettered by the  7/7 tribute until that was bettered by the lighting of the flame. It used to be easy to call events as corporate and expensive as the Olympic and Paralympics unsustainable and insincere, but after this, not anymore.

3. It really was for everyone

If anything was going to gee up the country, it was this love fest. It’s okay to be proud to be British. There has been a dark side to this country since the dark ages, but in my opinion these Games, for the first time ever,  represented the first time ever that something was being done for everyone. I packed my pensioner mother and octogenarian uncle off to Centre Court for one day. And they loved it! If you can put on a show my mum likes, trust me, you can really put on a show.

The venues were accessible, the sport was varied, the tickets were sold out, it was all over the BBC and Channel 4.You couldn’t escape it but then, you didn’t want to. Say what you like about UK Sport, funding wise  they got it right. We had British interest in all event that was competitive and where it wasn’t, it was plucky (I’m thinking water polo and handball for that one).

Where there wasn’t British interest, the British were still interested! Every winner was rewarded with a roar. Call it Friendly Imperialism; instead of taking over a country for a few decades, we adopted other nations for as long as they deserved, and sometimes even longer, whist they battled to do their countries proud.

Brits love an underdog because we Brits are normally the underdog! We cheered the athletes who finished last because for a change, the athletes who finished last weren’t British. I’ll drink to that!

4. The Paralympics. Better than I thought

I used to catch snippets of the Paralympics. I would see a few races of people swimming with no arms and running with no legs, but not really pay much attention. When in education, the Paras would always started at the same time as my new term. As an adult, well, I’ve got no excuse for my ignorance at all.

I didn’t understand the competition and I didn’t appreciate the athleticism.

Thank goodness for Channel 4. I enjoyed  the analysis of former Paralympians all preceded with titles such as “5 time gold medallist” or “former world record holder” because I was always thinking, “how have I not heard of you before?”

Why is Jason Smyth not a superstar?

Seriously, how did I live my life to this point without encountering Lee Pearson’s wit?

I think these Games have triggered a real paradigm shift in the way disabled people are seen by others, and perhaps, in the way a disabled person might see themselves. I used to think being disabled made a person “different” – that it was all about blue badge parking and priority boarding on planes, but it’s actually strange to think of a disabled person as different at all. Paralympic competition is exactly the same as Olympic competition. I kind of always knew this, but didn’t apply this respect with awareness and attention. It’s just something I used to think wasn’t for me.

Once the classifications were explained, I got it. I understood the field of play, the rivalry and the passion.  I even understood the rules of basketball through the wheelchair competition, having never grasped the complex time restrictions watching able-bodied people play!

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to look at the next person I see in a wheelchair and ask them what their PB for 200ms is.  But I am going to look at the next person I see in a wheelchair and perhaps not see the wheelchair at all.

I think a strong message has been sent around the world by the Paralympic Games of London 2012. The events of the Paralympics  is still so young when compared with Olympic partner events but make no doubt about it, disability sport is coming of age.

5. Legacy

If the government never makes good on a material or sporting legacy, I think there will be some great attitudinal shifts. Women in sport, disabled sport, a restored confidence in the Union Jack, heck, a restored confidence in the Jubilee line – the future is bright. Let’s hope we keep it up.

Bring on Rio!

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