Alan West detects the pungent smell of a bandwagon.
The London Olympics have been a triumph. Only the meanest, most grudging curmudgeon or somebody who has been up the Orinoco without a paddle, or a TV or any other means of communication could deny that.
For me, it started very late – with the opening ceremony itself. There seems almost no point in adding further superlatives to those already heaped upon Danny Boyle and for me it’s hard to pick out the high spot – could it have been the grimy smokestacks (complete with dangling steeplejacks) rising out of This Green and Pleasant Land, the Olympic rings being forged out of molten light or the eerie cycling blue doves? This feast was topped off by the smiling faces and genuine delight of the athletes as they strode into the stadium. Their happiness has proved utterly contagious. With one or two notable exceptions, we have all caught the bug. And here we are, two weeks on, wondering what possible marvels tonight’s closing ceremony could serve up that could in any way match it.
In short, this has been a wonderful celebration of ‘Team GB’, by which I mean all of us; this happy band of brothers and sisters, this polyglot bunch that we have become, the Britain as so adroitly described and celebrated in the opening ceremony. As I write this, the startled, smiling face of diminutive Mo Farah appears on TV. Born in Somalia, this adopted true Brit, has added the 5,000 metres to his 10,000 gold. Fantastic!
Talking of the meanest, most grudging curmudgeon, I note with considerable pleasure, the discomfort of that miserable little separatist, Alex Salmond, who, in a brief respite from trying to rig the date and everything else about his precious referendum to his utmost advantage, can’t even bring himself to mention Team GB by name. Instead he wishes good luck only to the Scottish members of the team, whom he has dubbed ‘Scolympians’. To his equally great credit, Chris Hoy, the Team GB flag carrier, fine athlete and proud Scot that he is, is having nothing to do with such peevishness.
Back at the games, the velodrome has been my greatest revelation. What marvels! There is the mysterious Keirin, led out by a chap who looks like a postman from the Austro-Hungarian Empire riding a motorised bicycle. Then the ‘sprint’ which appears to be anything but for the first two laps. This is capped only by the excitement of the pursuit, where the teams start like bats out of hell on opposite sides of the circuit and deftly swap places, whilst trying to catch the other team up. Magic.
So what will we do after the party is over?
Aside from the games themselves, there’s no better spectacle to behold than the smell of a bandwagon, meeting the finely tuned nose of an opportunist politician. Forgive the horribly mixed metaphors. This particular politician, who can detect a bandwagon from 800 or even 1500 meters, is of course David Cameron who, having recently presided over the scrapping of the minimal requirement for two hours of sport in schools a week, now announces that compulsory competitive sports are back, big time. Not to be overtaken on the back straight, Boris Johnson, ubiquitous Mayor of London 2012, has upped the bar with his suggestion of a compulsory two hours sport a day, on the basis, presumably, that it never did him any harm.
I despair. Sport is a fine expression of the human condition, as is great art and great literature, but it is not the be all and end all. I reflect on my own dread of the mandatory organised games of my schooldays. As an asthmatic child, being forced to play sport was at times a traumatic and humiliating experience and I am surely not alone in this. I shudder when I recall the torture of freezing playing fields in midwinter, blood, mud and cold showers, or rather the lack of the latter in my resouces-strapped secondary school’s case.
Luckily for me, I was saved by art. In the spirit of enlightenment which briefly took hold in the late sixties, I was allowed post O-levels to do art instead. I was no good at art either, but the art master praised my attempts to paint in the style of Salvador Dali or Hieronymus Bosch. Why not try something bigger, he intoned, as if I might be capable, one day, of taking on the Sistine Chapel.
So, it is fantastic that Team GB’s sporting achievements have the power to cheer us all up; God knows we need it, but even more compulsory games in school? I say, “No, no, no!”
What’s next? Forced feeding of cod liver oil, the return of free school milk, mandatory prayers and hymn singing before lessons, gratuitous beatings dished out by sadistic headmasters perhaps? By all means, let us all be in favour of excellence and of hard work and true achievement. This will be a welcome reversal of the muddled and ultimately absurd idea that every child has the potential, the right even, to become a fine sportsman (fine musician, etc.) if only we could remove the hard graft and the competitive element from the mix.
The Olympics have reminded us that in any great achievement, there are the essential components of talent, of desire, not a little luck, and damn hard work. Above all, sport has the great merit of teaching us what failure is all about and, with luck, finding a way to live with it. But, for me anyway, there are the unwanted lessons, when sport is enforced, of what brutality and brutalisation is about.
It is, as they say, a game of two halves. So, Mr Cameron, no more jumping on bandwagons please. Let’s instead focus on keeping Team GB together after the games have finished. That would be a legacy worth fighting for.