Expect the worst, hope for the best – while I would not go as far as calling this a national motto in the UK, nevertheless it accurately reflects a trait which seems to run deep in the national psyche. This almost cheery pessimism may help to explain many of the mysteries observed by overseas visitors. Why do British people not object to paying up to twice the European average for train tickets when they often end up sitting on the (not terribly clean) floor? Why is it that when the same road is dug up five times in a month by different utility companies, we respond with a shrug? Why do we not seem outraged or even particularly surprised when our airports grind to a halt after two inches of snow when other European cities seem to operate without trouble under two feet (or should that be 0.6m)?
And yet, ironically, in this country where strangers rarely speak to each other, it is when things go wrong that we begin to communicate. How many conversations have sprung up between strangers about the absence of summer or the lateness of a train or bus (I expect it is “leaves on the line” we say with wry humour, referring to a standard excuse used by train operators to explain delays, rivaled only in its ridiculousness by “the wrong kind of snow”)?
It is not that we don’t have high standards or hopes – it is more that we are resigned to the fact that they will rarely be met, and in the unlikely event that they are, we enjoy being pleasantly surprised.
So the prospect of London hosting the Olympics and Paralympic Games in 2012 was greeted by many Brits with cynical (sometimes verging on gleeful) predictions of shambolic organisation, security risks and traffic chaos. Rumours circulated that the opening ceremony would consist of “a bit of grass, a few sheep and some country dancing”; in stark contrast, it was feared, to the stunningly choreographed spectacle presented to the world by Beijing in 2008.
Even presidential hopeful Mitt Romney felt emboldened to question whether London would be able to run the Olympics smoothly, during his first foreign tour in July. His publically expressed doubts triggered a phenomenon not uncommon among the British – we tend to be modest and self-deprecating until challenged, at which point we may quickly rally around and counter-attack. David Cameron was quick to point out that the 2012 Olympics would be taking place in a busy city and not “in the middle of nowhere” – widely seen as a reference to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, which Romney organised. It could be said that the tide of public opinion towards the Olympics began to turn at that moment.
Of course there were still doubters and causes for concern in the run up to the great event. Mere weeks before the Games began, it emerged that G4S – the official security provider – had failed to recruit enough staff, leaving a shortfall which meant having to draft in 18,000 military personnel at very short notice. Special lanes reserved for members of the ‘Olympic Family’ (dubbed ‘Zil lanes’ after the former Soviet Union habit of reserving lanes for senior officials) were also the fuel for much criticism. However, when it came down to it, Brits were confronted with facilities that were completed on time and on budget. Recently, the government has announced that in fact the cost of hosting the Games was £377m under budget.
Not only that, but it transpired that the startlingly original Opening Ceremony ‘Isles of Wonder’, designed by film director Danny Boyle, managed to pull off that most elusive of ambitions – appealing to almost all sections of the diverse population that makes up the UK. With its seamless juxtaposition of high-brow and low-brow, vivid story-telling and inspiring music, it provided a dramatic showcase for many British achievements, including the Industrial Revolution and the much-maligned but secretly treasured NHS. The event, which became the most-viewed Olympic opening ceremony in both the UK and the US, included moments of quirky hilarity, as Mr Bean joined the London Symphony Orchestra in a rendition of Chariots of Fire and an unforgettable cameo appearance by the Queen herself, escorted to the venue by our very own James Bond (aka Daniel Craig), before apparently parachuting out of a helicopter into the stadium.
It is reported that, when asked for permission to use her image in the film, Her Majesty not only said that she would like to play the part herself, but questioned whether the type of helicopter the director planned to use would actually be able to fly under Tower Bridge. Whether you support the Royal Family or not, it is hard to avoid a frisson of pride at being reigned by a monarch, who was not only ‘game’ enough to star in such a film but was also able to offer expert advice on helicopters.
The other notable feature of the Opening Ceremony was the way in which it involved young people, from dancers and choirs to the seven promising young athletes who were given the role of lighting the spectacular Olympic cauldron, created by the coming together of 204 individual copper ‘petals’ (one to represent each of the competing nations).
And then suddenly, it felt as if the whole country was united behind this noble sporting endeavour; those who had decried the waste of public money at a time of economic crisis were scrambling on the internet to find tickets for any event they could get their hands on.
As if this wasn’t enough, we were then treated to outstanding performances by Team GB athletes – among them Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Laura Trott, Ben Ainslie, Andy Murray and Mo Farah. And the medals kept coming, leading to a final tally of 65 medals, with the UK finishing in third place after the US and China – and of these a staggering 29 were gold.
Winning all these medals felt like a bonus, and it reminded us that we are – and always have been – a nation passionate about sport. As IOC President Jacques Rogge said in his speech at the opening ceremony, “In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight. This great sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations.”
Other British traditions in evidence during the games included support for the underdog, as witnessed by the crowd of 20,000 cheering on Djibo Issaka from land-locked Niger who had only taken up rowing three months earlier; even the announcer cried, “You can do it!” as he crossed the finishing line a full minute and 40 seconds behind the winner.
Our ‘volunteer spirit’ was also strikingly demonstrated by the army of 70,000 Olympic and Paralympic Games Makers – unpaid helpers who made an invaluable contribution to the success of the event. Easily distinguishable in deep purple uniforms, they always seemed to be on hand to guide people, answer questions and even give first aid.
The Paralympics were as high profile and well-attended as the Olympics, another achievement for a country that is sometimes attacked for being overly ‘politically correct’ but that has slowly and patiently introduced policies to combat discrimination in many different areas to the point where we take the expectation of equality for granted in most aspects of life.
So in the end, we not only “muddled through” but really did “carry it off quite well.” Far from being crowded and chaotic, some parts of London were virtually empty, the public transport system worked flawlessly and in spite of that complete strangers could be seen speaking to each other – there was nothing to moan about, they were simply caught up in the sheer exhilaration of our golden summer.
London 2012 showed that the British people, when they put their mind to something, can still deliver. It was our moment in the sunshine, a chance for us to rediscover a pride and patriotism that is not about power, elitism and empire but energy, innovation and diversity.