REDEFINING BRITISHNESS

Being married to a Brit I have always taken a lively interest in the goings on of our nearest neighbours.  I have two children who are half English and, if I am to be very honest, that part of their heritage is not ever something I was that excited about.  Their Irishness contained all the attributes that I would have considered preferable for life – an ability to talk the hind legs off the proverbial donkey, an inner knowing of what ‘the craic’ is, the love of a good party and an understanding that slagging someone you love is really a show of affection.  Other than great organisational skills I was unsure what other national traits their English heritage gifted them.  I suppose you could short hand all this by saying my attitude to the Brits is that they’re grand – a bit boring and predictable – but grand.

To back up this dodgy theory I would regale my kids with the story of the first time I travelled to London to spend the weekend with my beloved.  I was to accompany him to a wedding – a daunting prospect as I knew absolutely no-one.  The wedding itself took place in a beautiful ancient English church complete with lychgate and with real bells tolling to announce the newly wedded couple.  The reception was in an equally lovely country hotel with duck pond and gorgeous gardens.  The day was sunny and warm.  The people I met were all very nice too and made me feel very welcome.  But it was all over by 9pm.  The bar closed and everyone went home.  I couldn’t believe it.  This to me summed up England – grand but a tad dull.  And yes I am quite aware that this was a very lazy view of the neighbours.

So when I sat down to watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony I was expecting to see a well executed show complete with a dollop of Royalty and the usual line up of British greats from the world of music.  What I was not expecting was to see was Her Majesty playing a cameo role in a Bond skit where she apparently jumps out of a helicopter into the arena.  What was this?  Were the Brits laughing at themselves?
The great organisation I had come to expect was there alright – but it was used to create a show that was chaotic, quirky, exuberant and magical.  Sure there was great lighting and pyrotechnics but over-riding all this was a creativity that was mind-blowing; the cyclists with the luminous wings, the children jumping on hospital beds, the Mary Poppins’s who floated into the arena – breathtaking and enchanting.  And there was powerful symbolism too, particularly in the lighting of the magnificent ceremonial bowl of flame by the next generation of young athletes.

The Opening Ceremony seemed to set a tone that was miles away from the bad press in the weeks leading up to the games with stories of Olympic Lanes forcing motorists off the road and the security shambles.  For the last two weeks we have watched an Olympic Games where almost everything was golden – from the smiling volunteers to the good humoured crowds.

I wondered if the Closing Ceremony would revert to type.  We already knew that we were going to be treated to a ‘symphony of British music’, but once again the Brits surpassed themselves and surprised me.  We were all invited to join in a wild party with performers singing on juggernauts, in convertible Bentleys and on top of Taxis.  Annie Lennox appeared like some kind of warrior Goddess on the prow of a ship singing Little Bird.  And best of all The Who, closed the show delivering My Generation to at least three younger generations of British musicians who joined them on stage.

As I watched I began to feel that this Olympics was about so much more than sport.  Over the last two weeks our neighbours have redefined what it is to be British.  They have revitalised Brand GB into something alive, colourful, witty, creative and magical.  It has been a joy to watch.  And I am very relieved for my children and think I will stop with the wedding story now.

One of the most poignant moments of the Closing Ceremony was when the face of John Lennon appeared on the screen singing Imagine….. “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope one day you’ll join me.  And the world can live as one.”  London 2012 came very near to providing us with an insight as to what such a world would feel like.  Maybe the Mayans were right after all about 2012 heralding in a new era of peace and understanding on this troubled planet.  I hope so.  But, seriously who would have ever thought it would have been the Brits who would deliver the goods.

Bravo GB.  What a wonderful couple of weeks and I am very pleased to have better stories to tell my kids about what it means to be English!

I STILL DON’T GET SPORT

I was dreading the Olympics.  I don’t really get sport.  The thought of two weeks of wall to wall competition of all kinds filled me with dread.

The Opening Ceremony cheered me up a lot though and left me a little better disposed towards the events themselves.  I actually found I quite enjoyed watching the track and field competitions.  I particularly liked the Javelin, Discus and Pole Vault – they have a balletic elegance and timelessness about them that appealed to me.   They seem to still carry the energy of ancient Athens.  The sprints and long distance races were exciting.   Mo Farah stands out for his sheer joy at winning his first medal.  His family presented a beautiful tableau as his wife glided majestically like a pregnant Goddess across the track to congratulate him while his young daughter jumped about and waved her flag.  A holy trinity of joy.

Who couldn’t but admire Usain Bolt with all his theatrical gestures and wonderful confidence?

Ireland’s Olympians did a great job too led by Katie Taylor who Sean Ban Breatnach gushingly elevated to the status of Queen Meabh and Marys McAleese and Robinson.  And sure why not – she is a gracious and wonderful ambassador for us – although I am too much of a wuss to watch boxing and really wish her sporting prowess was in something else.

There was all that joy and good humour but there was also plenty of pain and tears.  Athletes who ‘just missed out on gold’, who ‘only’ got a bronze, who ‘didn’t make the final’.  The interviews these athletes were forced to give as they came to terms with their disappointment made for some very uncomfortable TV.  I heard the words ‘failure’, ‘letting themselves and others down’, of ‘not being good enough’.  This is where I don’t get sport.

Every single competitor at London 2012 is an accomplished athlete… if they weren’t they wouldn’t be there.  Of course I understand they are driven to win and I accept that.  But I do feel that we don’t do enough to celebrate the taking part as the greater aspect of the games.

For me the bravest and most impressive competitor at the games didn’t win any medal.  She didn’t even come close.  In fact she came last in her 800m race – almost a full lap behind the winner.  Her name is Sarah Attar and she was one of the two female athletes from Saudi Arabia – the first time this country has permitted women to compete.  Wearing a long sleeved top and full leggings and a white hijab, Sarah was running for something just as precious and probably more important than gold or silver.  She was blazing a trail for women and young girls in her home country to follow.  She was cheered all the way home with a standing ovation.  This, for me, is the true spirit of the Olympics.

Call me naive but I truly believe that sport should be about the taking part and not just the winning… in fact I think it’s the taking part that should be wildly celebrated.  I have seen the consequences of ‘winning at all costs’ with young children in schools and it would literally break your heart.  I’m talking about the child who does their best but it’s not good enough and they get side-lined all the time.  This is something particularly prevalent in football.  Is it OK in sport to sometimes humiliate a child in this way?  Is it OK for the media to thrust a microphone under the chin of a devastated athlete and ask them ‘how they are feeling about not achieving better?’

In my simplistic world if you have done your best well that’s just good enough and you deserve nothing but praise and celebration.

The one athlete I saw who totally bucked the trend was young Tom Daley the British diver.  He was tipped as a possible gold medal.  He got bronze and he was thrilled.  His exuberant joyful celebration was in stark contrast to John Joe Nevin who felt he let everyone down by only winning silver.  Good on Tom Daley – what a great role model for doing your best and that being good enough.

London 2012 changed my mind about the Olympics – mainly due to the wonderful atmosphere that was tangible even when just watching on TV.  But it hasn’t changed what I think about sport.  I’m sticking to my guns on my belief that it’s not about the winning as much as about taking part.  I know – I just don’t get sport!