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The Olympocalypse That Wasn't

Posted: 13/08/2012 11:30

Tanya Goldhaber, a PhD candidate in Engineering at Cambridge University, writes why it's not too late to inspire a generation

As is now common knowledge, the Olympocalypse failed to materialise. After months of panicked headlines in every national newspaper and Boris Johnson's voice cheerfully reminding us not to take the tube during the Games, the largest crowds I saw during the Olympics were not at an event but rather during my venture to BT London Live in Hyde Park to watch the men's 10m diving finals, where thousands of spectators voluntarily squeezed together in front of a giant screen to cheer on Tom Daley.

In fact, the games were spectacularly well-organised. Over the course of the four events I attended - Beach Volleyball, Women's Football, Women's Volleyball, and Taekwondo - the queues at security were minimal to nonexistent, the crowds were large but not really much worse than during an average tourist season in London, and, more importantly, the games were both enjoyable and inspirational. The glitches were minor (adjacent signs guiding spectators to Horseguards Parade pointed in opposite directions) and the inconveniences unanticipated (not being able to visit the National Gallery or the London Transport Museum because of the queues at the temporary and poorly staffed bag checks).

But while the Games were certainly a success on the organisational level, they have been even more important on a cultural level. Of the many friends, colleagues, and peers I informally surveyed in the months leading up to the Opening Ceremony, the level of discomfort with London hosting the Olympics ranged from a general unease to a vehement opposition. Only one or two people expressed any sort of excitement or optimism. The general feeling was that it was going to be a disaster, and moreover one that would have none of the long-lasting benefits hyped by the increasingly frenzied government. While the numbers, once crunched, may not encourage much enthusiasm, it is critical to consider the more intangible effects of London playing host to the world, particularly as they are the very effects that will quickly wither if not encouraged to blossom.

On August 6, I went to Wembley to see Japan play France in the women's football semi-final, a game that I wasn't initially overly excited about since football is not exactly an underrepresented sport in the UK. My friend and I hadn't looked up who was playing before the match, so when we arrived and discovered that it was France v. Japan, we decided to root for Japan on behalf of the friends I made when I travelled there after my last year of Uni.

Then began one of the most memorable sporting events of my life.

The game itself was fast-paced and close with neither team having a clear advantage until the final whistle, at which point Japan emerged the winner thanks to a few notably poor shots on goal by the French and some awe-inspiring work by the Japanese goalie. It was the atmosphere, however, that was the most inspirational. There were relatively few French and Japanese people in the stadium, meaning that the majority of the support for both teams came from spectators with no formal affiliation with those countries. This made it no less moving, not just for football but for every event I witnessed both live and televised, when the victorious team collapsed or embraced in elation.

In truth, the Olympics represent the world coming together. It is the world coming together in a time of crisis, in times of trouble, but coming together nonetheless. I watched in Wembley as people who had never been to Japan or France cheered with all their hearts for a team made up of people that did not speak their language. An international crowd roared with every goal scored, and if you were on the Japanese team or the French team, it really was the whole world cheering for you.

After my football match, I went to House of Nations (one of many fun national houses to spring up in London for the Games) to watch the rest of the day's events. I watched as Britons, Americans, and the rest of the world cheered Kirani James as he won Grenada's first ever Olympic medal. I watched the world cheer Usain Bolt shatter another record. I watched people I will never meet, and whose language I do not speak, tear up at the same time as me as a lifetime of hard work and dedication was rewarded to a cheering crowd, independent of the music playing in the background.

We cheer for these people not because they are from our countries, but because they have done something great. The world unites to celebrate their achievements in a way that it does only every four years, and this year the United Kingdom has the privilege and honour of hosting this tradition. Numerically, it may not have much impact. Numerically, it may even look bad. But what cannot happen is a failure to harness the energy in every stadium, in every park, in every room with a television, and turn that energy into something great for this country.

What we miss when we try to numerically quantify the effect that the Olympics has had and will have on the nation is all the unquantifiable, immeasurable effects that will permeate the national consciousness, and the international consciousness, for decades to come. How can you measure that moment when you found pride in your nation or when you found respect for another nation through the accomplishments of their athletes? How can you quantify the moment when two young people from different cultures meet for the first time and think "I cheered for your country", "I saw your fastest runner cross the finish line," "I cried too when they placed the gold medal around her neck."

What cannot happen is a failure to harness this newfound pride and use it to drive the UK forwards. What I hope for London and for the UK is to stop only taking pride in things only after they fail to be a disaster. Cautious pessimism can be motivating, but it can also be damaging, and a country and culture that turns its back on bold ideas is one that will, on the world stage, inevitably vanish into irrelevance. Of the Olympics, London can be proud in the national and international spotlight. That pride may not be measurable, but if given the chance, it can be persistent, it can permeate the national consciousness, and it can do just what the Games have advertised - inspire a generation.

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