I admit it, I’m an Olympic junkie. I may approach each Games with cynicism towards all the money and the corporate insanity that surrounds it; but the moment people of any nation start getting their hands on medals, it all crumbles away and I’m helpless under the onslaught of incredible achievement.
I look at Michael Phelps and shake my head in disbelief. I can’t get my head around achievement at that level. Team GB swimmer Rebecca Adlington, last week said that getting a medal in her sport was incredibly hard; so for Phelps to be finishing at London 2012 having amassed a lifetime haul of eighteen Olympic gold medals and twenty medals in total, is the point at which you look at this guy and wonder if he’s a different species to the rest of us.
The phenomenon that is Phelps aside, everywhere you look in the Olympics there are people achieving at the most incredible levels. Running seems to be what East Africans do and they’ve had a strangle-hold on middle to long distance running for decades. That was until training partners Mo Farah (GBR) and Galen Rupp (USA) got together and worked out a plan of how to break it. And break it they did, with 80,000 people in a stadium going completely NUTS about it. What a race! To be honest, it made the women’s 100m final that was immediately afterwards look like a sideshow - and it wasn’t because there wasn’t a British woman in the final. The 10,000m runners ran 23 and a half laps of a track and then put in 600m of completely insane sprinting to finish the race. Mo and Galen came home first and second, while all around people’s jaws were hitting the decks, wondering how on earth you pull that out when you’ve already run for the best part of half an hour. That the next event up was only running 100m very fast, seemed a case of not trying.
Mo is just one example. In Team GB we’re in the heady position of tripping over people who are achieving at the highest levels, not something a country that’s made its reputation from being terribly sporting in defeat is used to being in. I think Sydney 2000 showed us what can be achieved by our athletes with proper funding and the right training. It also showed us the effect that sport can have on an entire country. I came away from watching the Sydney Olympics with the impression that everyone in Australia was good at sport. Especially that nice Ian Thorpe. He was very good at it.
In Athens and Beijing, although Team GB did better and better, I really didn’t really get a sense of what sport meant to the people of those countries. In Beijing especially, it seemed to be about how awesome China was at being awesome; not the average Joe in the street yelling his countrymen on from his house, which was as far away from Beijing as I pretty much was.
Not so London 2012, where spectating has turned into an Olympic sport. Back in 2005 when London was in the final stages for pitching for the 2012 Olympics, I remember Lord Coe (Gold, 1500m - 1980, 1984) saying something along the lines that there would be no more perfect place to bring the Olympic Games, than to a country that was mad about sport. I must admit I looked at him and scoffed. I don’t as a rule ‘do sport’. Sport for me has become a horrible sourness of overpaid Premiership footballers getting embroiled in race rows on Twitter. That’s what immediately came to mind, not roaring Kelly Holmes on as she achieved double Olympic glory and being gobsmacked as we cemented our dominance of track cycling with some bloke called Bradley Wiggins (whatever happened to him…). I’d forgotten how watching sport had made me feel.
And now the Olympics is in my home country and the feeling is back. I am going for my fourth consecutive gold medal in Olympic armchair spectating and I may very well overdose on it. That feel-good-factor is being blasted through the TV, the Radio and the Internet virtually 24 hours a day and I can’t get enough of it! Lord Coe was right, we really are a sports-mad nation. Look at us! You don’t get a jammed athletics stadium at ten in the morning if you’re a bit apathetic about sport, even the legend that is Michael Johnson is acknowledging that. They’ve never seen anything like it. That’s why the empty seats rankled so much at the start of the event. The public want to be there and seeing sponsors and sports associations having seats and leaving them empty does not sit well with us. Rightly, Lord Coe was on it and it’s not been much of an issue since – well not since we struck gold and we went off on one long party (the conga is now in Ashby de la Zouch by the way).
We can’t all be Michael Phelps. We can’t all be Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis or Louis Smith, but one thing we can all do is tap into this incredible aura that surrounds achievement – which is why spectating is becoming so addictive. You start to believe that you too can do things. You start to believe that things in your own life can change. If she can train for four years for that, why can’t I make this small change in my life? Actually, thinking about it, I think I really could do that! London 2012′s mission is to inspire a generation. I think they should revise it to say inspire every generation.
At some point the Olympic and Paralympic Games will finish and we’ll all go back to ‘normal life’. I worry about what life will be like after that. I think we’ll have a nation of inspired people who don’t know the meaning of the word ‘can’t’. A nation who have lifted their heads out of the mire and seen that something exists outside, out there, just slightly out of reach right now, but if I stretch…
There’s no finer legacy for the Olympics to leave a host nation, than as a country that believes in itself – and we’ll be taking gold in that.