Wednesday 17 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: London holds its breath

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The skies are cloudless here, but London still draws down a light rain of misgiving. It seems the city doesn't quite trust itself. Every day an inventory of bad news excites the news channels as if we are all at 30,000 feet, smoke pouring from an engine.

For veterans of Atlanta's 'Glitch Games' (where ghost shuttle buses still roam the freeways, whimpering drivers at the wheel), this is odd. The stadia glint like pearls in the sun and the postered streets have a candyish glow. And, for all the cock-ups with traffic and security, with flags and hissing unions, the sense of welcome here is palpable.

Corporatism and airy symbolism may make up the outer shell of any Olympics, but the people are its lungs. And London has set itself the task of becoming something it has never been. Friendly. It's working too. There are still little pressure points where the city's arteries tighten and white van men glower as official traffic skittles effortlessly by, but the troops and volunteers flood the place with smiles and gentle courtesy.


Olympic Park sits in the previously dingy East-End borough of Newham, a great swathe of ground reclaimed from landfill and given over to fantasy.

This is a vast melting pot of ethnic minorities hitherto unfamiliar with London's prosperity. On Wednesday night, the BBC ran a report on slum dwellings residing "in the shadow" of the Olympic Stadium. This was a gentle lie, of course, for nothing ever exists close enough to an Olympic Stadium to chill off in its shadow.

But Newham is a small eternity from Mayfair and Kensington, the rich boutique malls of Bond Street. Most of its properties are multi-occupancy and more than half of those living there do not speak English as a first language.

And, if London has always prided itself on its internationalism, Newham would previously have been one of its dirty little secrets thought best to keep under wraps.

Maybe the BBC cameras peering into a few rat-infested hovels served a specific public service, reminding us how the Olympics get people asking all sorts of questions they might not otherwise ask.

Now the Frenchman who lived in a 'death trap' attic might still be there on an even higher rent next month (China didn't change much when we asked it to four years ago, after all), but, through the Olympics, at least a light is being directed somewhere it would not otherwise have been shone.

Of course, tonight the sky will fill with fireworks and the athletes will take ownership of London 2012.

We are promised a role for David Beckham in the £27m opening ceremony and it could be that he will abseil down from the moon. Becks seems to have become a special project for Seb Coe and his LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) luminaries as they continue to monitor his convalescence from the bad news of not making Britain's football squad.

Yesterday, Beckham was reputedly meeting British Prime Minister David Cameron to highlight a new drive at "tackling global food shortage." You kind of know you're at an Olympics when you read that sentence.

Still, it feels good to be here. There are a few tumultuous shoot-outs to savour -- Bolt v Blake; Phelps v Lochte; Katie Taylor v Queen Underwood. And, for all the parsimony of our sports funding, there is a stronger than normal feeling that Team Ireland will be flying home with medals.

Most of our athletes have brought small troops of family and friends with them and, if London getting the Games seven years ago was bogusly painted as some kind of lotto win for Ireland -- as if we'd pick up parts of the gig by proxy -- this is the nearest thing to a home Olympics we will ever know.

The girl carrying our flag tonight, a four-time world champion, didn't have a toilet or shower in her gym until a member of the public recently intervened. But Katie Taylor has long been the poster-girl for women's boxing and will tonight feature, with a handful of other world-class athletes, on an IOC video broadcast to the opening ceremony.

But she will not compete until August 6 at the earliest, by which time all manner of glories and absurdities will, no doubt, have filled the world's sports pages. On Wednesday, the IAAF announced that nine athletes had been suspended from competing at the Games because of doping offences and there's no doubt that every Olympics of modern times has felt part opera, part peep show.

In Los Angeles, almost 30 years ago, they said the detection system was so sophisticated it could identify a spoonful of a banned substance in a swimming pool. In Atlanta, 12 years later, they spent £1m installing three mass spectrometers that, reputedly, could detect something taken by an athlete four months previously.

Now they map the 'biological passports' of athletes, measuring any changes in their blood profile. It sounds water-proof, but it isn't. Over half of the athletes at these Games will be tested, including all medallists. Those tests will pick up traces of any one of 240 prohibited substances.

But no-one doubts some cheats will still outwit the testers. As Al Guy, the man who tested Michelle Smith that infamous morning in Kilkenny 14 years ago, said recently: "It's unlikely you're going to get any of the big fish because their resources are too great."

So, there will be stories of indelible beauty and others that leave us feeling hollow and cheated. And everything will unspool in an atmosphere that feels a little overegged and mawkish.

At a ceremony repeated ad nauseum in the athletes' village this week, the National Youth Theatre put on a show, welcoming different teams to the Games. And 'village mayor' Duncan Goodhew, a gold medalist in the breaststroke in Moscow 1980, stood (a courtier holding an umbrella over his bald head) telling each and every one: "Your time has come."

Afterwards, the head of each delegation was invited to "sign up for the Olympic truce" on a row of glass walls. With 204 teams to get through -- and a maximum of six for each show -- the theatre girls and boys could probably have done with some performance-enhancing drugs of their own.

So, for now, everything is about peace and goodwill in Olympia. And the comic relief comes from a mayor who seems to regard the Olympic Park as his own private trophy garden. Boris is everywhere with his mad, floppish hair and smile that makes small babies cry.

The Games budget has already quadrupled from its original estimate of £2.4bn and claims that the economic benefits to London will outweigh the costs, will prove what they always prove for a host city -- nonsense.

In monetary terms, the real winners of any Olympic Games are the IOC, who have, in their ownership of this two-week carnival, a printing press for money. They have already raised almost $5bn in broadcast fees and sponsorship for a four-year package that also included the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010.

This is before they then sit around the table with their 'global partners' and negotiate sponsorship deals that keep the likes of McDonalds, Panasonic and Coca Cola on board with long-term contracts. Those sponsors are precluded from advertising their wares inside the Olympic Stadium. Outside, the world is theirs to paint.

So, the corporate side can give the Games a slightly constipated quality. But so much else will occupy our imaginations these coming weeks and even London, one of the most arched, pre-occupied cities in the world, will look east and eventually be charmed.

In time, it might even begin to trust itself.

Irish Independent

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