God it was a strange day in London. Thankfully, the Brits finally got gold, two in fact — one in cycling, with Bradley Wiggins in the cycling time trials, and one in the rowing with Helen Glover and Heather Stanning in the women’s coxless pairs.
The double win pumped the host nation a few places up the medal tally, and gave a great deal of relief to a British public who had been watching a home team performance that to date had pretty well been coxless. The Brits had two very enjoyable days of near-misses, never-would-have-beens, and what-thes, but it couldn’t go on forever.
Across the city, people cheered in the pubs, in genuine pleasure and relief, and full of good feeling, especially for the rowers, one of whom only began the sport after the Beijing Olympics. It was a nice moment on a summer day, the light combination of talent, determination and chance that makes for any sporting victory. What could possibly spoil it?
Sebastian Coe, head of the London Organising Committee, found a way to do it. Success, he said, “was infectious”, and this medal would surely be followed by others. Well, maybe, but maybe not, or not in the profusion hoped for. The innate determination of the official to pull the free moment of a sporting event back to the needs of the state, negates the victory itself, or attempts to.
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Curiously, it’s something that many British athletes have internalised, in a way that wasn’t the case until recently. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right — 20 years ago, no one came out of the pool having come fourth to three humans who’ve been grown in test tubes at the Pyongyang Institute of Sport (CEO Bruce Doule, that’s where he went), and apologised to the nation for their abject failure.
That’s especially so, since the nation in question is watching in the pub through their eighth pint of Old King Spittle, and inhaling a pack of eel and Marmite crisps. All the more so, since the two sports in question push the human body to visible limits. As Glover and Stanning pushed, strained, and had their musculature all but pop out of their skin, the strange asymmetry of a two-person spectator sport watched by billions had never been more apparent.
Everywhere else, things went crazy. Four badminton teams — count ’em — were disqualified and sent home, for “not playing to the best of their abilities”, a rule that explains why Carlton have never made the Olympics. It began with one Chinese pair and the South Korean pair trying to lose their match together, in order to avoid an adverse draw for the quarter finals. The Indonesians and another South Korean pair did the same thing. Despite several warnings during the match, none of the teams had played through, and all were disqualified.
The behaviour of all four teams was roundly criticised as unsportslike, but the problem was not with a sudden outbreak of rottenness. The first rounds had been redesigned from immediate knockout to round robin, sorting players into group rankings for the quarter finals. There was thus a powerful, indeed over-riding, incentive for the top two teams in any group to avoid each other at all costs.
The fault, once again, lay with officials, putting competitors — especially the Chinese — in a particularly sticky situation. They will doubtless be apologising to their nation, before stepping into the soundproofed van, and having the bill sent to their relatives. Either that or they’ll get a beer commercial. Officials said the incident would damage the reputation of the game, potentially dissuading people from taking up the activity of banging a feather from the underside over a sagging net, while wearing gay shorts. Though the badminton competition was thrown into chaos, the goodminton finals proceeded undisturbed.
Yes, that was one of the jokes London mayor Boris Johnson might have made today, when he was hanging mid-air from a flying fox for several minutes. Boris has been omnipresent of late — all the buses and trains carrying a recorded message from his mayorship, telling us to plan our journeys as there will be millions — sorry, meeyons — of people here, and the pressures will be immense. Part headmastorial announcement across the PA, part-torpid Ceausescuesque hangover, it is deeply depressing. On a 176 from North to Sarf London last week, I heard it eight times. It has subsequently been ditched.
Johnson is using the Olympics to position himself as the natural conservative leader of the country — in the past two weeks he has been far more visible than David Cameron, who has barely been seen. But Cameron is PM, and Boris is merely mayor, there’s a reason for that, and Cameron appears to have been drawing on it, to give him enough rope.
He could not have known how true this would be. Over the past six months Boris has been making sure that everyone identifies him with a one-station cable car that has recently been slung over the Thames, in the East. Though it’s a novelty, the car is ostensibly part of the integrated transport system, and thus appears on the iconic London tube map — as the “Emirates” cable car, the airline having bought a space on the map for a period of 10 years.
Boris has thus broached the fully public character of the map — named a few years ago, as the iconic image of London — for the first time since it was designed in the 1930s. Nevertheless, people like the cable car itself. In that spirit, Boris turned up at a fly-wire in the East End’s Victoria Park, to celebrate Britain’s medal victories, by doing a run, while waving Union Jacks. Halfway through, he began to slow, and became stuck, hanging above the crowd for about five minutes, as gape-mouthed spectators took vids, while the mayor wailed for a ladder.
Boris put a brave face on it — it is his latest stunt, after starting a Mexican wave at the beach volleyball the day before — but it is not impossible that this single incident has finished his career. He was always a buffoon, partly as a deliberate strategy, but to hang like a Billy Bunter pinata from a wire long enough for his enemies to draft a dozen or full-page ads in their head. Boris could always raise a giggle, by his own wit — now it is impossible to think of him without a smile spreading wide across one’s face.
No one knows where Boris will next appear. The mayor of the city hosting the 2016 Games has already expressed his disquiet at appearing with BJ at the handover ceremony. “We don’t know what he’ll do — he’s crazy,” has remarked Eduardo Paes, who is mayor of Rio de Janeiro. Rio. De. Janeiro. Meanwhile, it is noses back to the spectatorial grindstone tomorrow, with archery, judo, fencing and shooting. Archery versus judo, fencing versus shooting … then I’d watch. I fully expect Britain to ride out this period of success and return safe to the downy slopes of disappointment, imminently.