The soul of the Olympics lies in a uniquely British paradox: The hosts desperately want medals, yet greet failures with a stiff upper lip, a smile even. What matters most is that their guests feel included and simply have a go
This is an article from the Aug. 6, 2012 issue
THE LONDON Olympics only had to swap out one word to set themselves right. After pre-Games shortfalls in security staffing that one MP called "a humiliating shambles," the opening ceremony delivered a kind of exhilarating shambles, a choreographed chaos featuring suffragettes and hunger marchers and proud flaunting of the fact that we aren't in Beijing anymore, so it's O.K. to blast the Sex Pistols in front of the Queen. Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle didn't choose the flag bearers, but of the three nations that sent their first female athletes to an Olympics, Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the former two chose women to lead their delegations.
And so a theme for these Games emerged. It was as if Boyle's hand were still at work, directing a pageant of radical inclusivity and reconciliation set to last 17 days. On NBC's broadcast of the opening ceremony, Bob Costas noted the IOC's refusal to include a tribute to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics (page 68) and improvised a moment of silence of his own. The first world record of the Games went to South Korea's Im Dong-hyun, an archer who's legally blind. Natalia Partyka of Poland, a table tennis player with no right hand, joined Oscar Pistorius, the prosthetically fitted "blade runner" from South Africa (page 62), as someone who would not be waiting for the Paralympics, thank you very much.
In a gesture of national healing, Japanese athletes arrived in London with medals already in hand—beribboned discs, hewed by children from driftwood left by the 2011 tsunami (page 76). The support greeting Megan Rapinoe after her recent announcement that she's gay had the U.S. midfielder playing some of the most exuberant soccer of her career (page 58). And no hijab could have concealed the womanhood of Malaysia's Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, who competed in the 10-meter air rifle while eight months pregnant. "I have two hearts," she said after placing 34th of 56, "so maybe I am stronger."
These Olympics also have two hearts, in their way: the intrepid one of the visiting athletes, and the welcoming one of the host city, with its 270 nationalities speaking 300 languages. It helps that the British Olympic team has no in-your-face slogan like the Own the Podium campaign trumpeted by Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Games. In fact, the Brits model a particular kind of sporting futility. It's not just that they fail; they get to the very threshold of victory and fail. This summer delivered more fodder for the national complex, from an England soccer team that flamed out of the Euro on two missed penalties, to Andy Murray, who was carved up by Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. A newspaper headline nailed it: HOPE SPRINGS INFERNAL.
IN SATURDAY'S cycling road race Britain's Mark Cavendish seemed ticketed for a kinder fate. The most accomplished sprinter in history had just won the final stage of the Tour de France, bolting up the Champs-Élyseés in the equivalent of London's Olympic bid victory over Paris. Three teammates had also won stages of the Tour, including yellow jersey owner Bradley Wiggins, and each had pledged to work on Cavendish's behalf back home. Cavendish himself had dropped almost 10 pounds to better navigate the nine ascents of Box Hill in Surrey, and before the race Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall wished the British team good luck. It was easy to imagine royalty in the postrace tableau, congratulating the Manxman on delivering what IOC president Jacques Rogge hoped would be an early gold medal to set the native mood. Instead the reluctance of other teams to collaborate with Britain left the victory to Alexander Vinokourov, a convicted doper from Kazakhstan. The hosts were reduced to making Borat jokes and taking umbrage of the sort that, on the subject of drugs, they have no peer.
The Brits have set a goal of winning 48 medals, and three days in they had won only three, none of them gold. Perhaps they began to wonder if there were some painful, deeper truth behind the observation that they seem to excel in sports—cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing—where you sit down. The construction of London's most dazzling new building, the Shard, was funded by Qataris; Jaguar and Land Rover now belong to Indians; most of the banks in the skyscrapers at Canary Wharf are foreign-owned; and the U.K.'s most storied soccer clubs are run by vulgarians from Russia and the U.S. This phenomenon of hosting but not really possessing global superlatives has a name, inevitably drawn from sport: the Wimbledon Effect.
But a humble host tends to be a gracious one. By sprinkling through his opening ceremony instances of national failure, like the weatherman who famously missed a hurricane, Boyle showcased Britain's ability to laugh at itself. There's no better Olympic-related example of this than the wildly popular BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve, which tells of the misadventures of a fictional "Olympic Deliverance Committee." The series, a kind of Fawlty Venues, sends up a feckless, jargon-bound bureaucracy, but with affection for the well-intended people who populate it. So many of the show's plotlines have prefigured actual events—from a broken countdown clock in Trafalgar Square, to a bus full of Olympic visitors misdirected by a GPS—that director John Morton recently wondered, "Why can't they make up their own problems?"
Not to worry. During introductions before North Korea's opening women's soccer game, the South Korean flag flashed up on the scoreboard, prompting the team to leave the field for more than an hour to wait for an apology. Last Friday morning, joining in a nationwide pealing of bells, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt rang a handbell so vigorously that the brass left its handle and sailed perilously close to two women behind him. "A Twenty Twelve moment," Hunt called it, and people across Britain nodded understandingly.
DREAD THAT they'll fail to stage a successful Games, dread that their athletes will wobble on the cusp of victory—both come from the same very British place. But at least the Brits recognize this, and in doing so seem better able to deal with it. London organizers don't have a director of security, but a Director of Security and Resilience, as if they know there'll be screwups and the important thing is to bounce back from them. To read the daily papers is to delight in the arch, Britcomic sensibility with which reporters treat "cock-ups," "rows" and "omnishambles." When London organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe admitted that the security staffing firm G4S had "a fragility in its ability," Patrick Kidd of The Times of London wondered if a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was about to break out.
A country that's no longer a cocky imperial power is susceptible to something called "postcolonial melancholia." That too isn't a bad malady for an Olympic host to come down with, because jingoism and nationalism usually aren't side effects, and into that breach of isms Britain can welcome as equals athletes from its many former colonies. But Boyle's tone-setting opening ceremony took that point further. It declared that London has a place for anyone, including the oddball and outcast, committed to the Olympic ideal of having a go. Even as Britain's own athletes sometimes seem to say, "No success please, we're British," that attitude contains the seeds for the staging of an ecumenical Olympics. Which, if London can pull it off, might well be the triumph that pleases the British most of all.
How's Team USA faring? And every other nation? Get up-to-the-minute medal standings at si.com/olympics.