I had always watched the Olympics. I saw Cassius Clay on TV from Rome. I watched the Cold War showdowns – high jumpers John Thomas and Valeriy Brumel; long jumpers Ralph Boston and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan – medal count against medal count.
I watched, shocked, Bob Beamon in Mexico City, the Munich massacre, and Ben Johnson in Seoul.
I discovered live in Montreal the greatness of volleyball and the impossibility of gymnastics.
When Al Michaels rose to the occasion in Lake Placid – “Do you believe in miracles?” – I was the guy beside him who missed the podium. “Unbelievable!” was all I could say.
Many don’t like the hype of the Olympics. I love it. They don’t like the ceremony, the flag-waving and the spectacle. I love them all. As a kid, to push myself to do something I didn’t know I could do, in sports or out, I’d imagine a gold medal around my neck and O Canada being played.
But I wasn’t intending to watch much of the Olympics this time. The Olympics had come to seem too much to me. Too many hours and too many days of too many people pushing too hard for me to believe what, in cynical times, I wasn’t sure they believed themselves. I’d watch if I had nothing else to do.
It wasn’t one moment when things changed. The opening ceremony offer a host city and host nation the chance to portray to the world how it wants the world to see it. Beijing, in music, dance, visual images, pyrotechnics and architecture offered breathtaking conception, aspiration and delivery.
Its straight-between-the-eyes message to the world was, “Look out.” Vancouver’s was a more conventional story, of what the world sees and knows of Canada but, in the distraction of big events and bigger places, what it forgets to appreciate. Its opening ceremony offered a pleasant, proud, fun reminder.
London could have tried to top the over-the-top achievement of Beijing, and failed. It could have offered a glorious wallow in Britain’s history, and remind the world again of what Britain no longer is. It could have been too “royal.”
And while the Queen offered a memorable cameo in a James Bond skit, she didn’t pander. The Queen doesn’t pander. In presenting itself, London might not have had the confidence to try to convey humour to a diverse world where humour doesn’t translate, or have looked for cheap laughs, but Rowan Atkinson didn’t.
In its centrepiece medley of Britain’s 20th-century music, it could have seemed too much like a Super Bowl halftime, its music too inconsequential for a nation’s story. But it didn’t. Power may come and power may go, London’s message seemed to be, and who knows the future. But if you’re a nation that can create Shakespeare, the Beatles and Harry Potter, you’ll be fine.
After that, it was one thing after another. The men’s cycling road race through London and the countryside, and the rain, not enough to ruin the race but enough to offer one more anxious challenge to the riders; enough to be London. The shots of the city, of which there would be so many more later in the marathons, even in beach volleyball, as the cameras panned back from the cheeky incongruity of bikinis instead of ceremonial armour where the House Guards usually parade, there it was. A stadium full of fans may be a great backdrop, but London is better.
And not just the routine big sites of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace; it was the city itself. The improbability of it stopping, of life willing and able to be interrupted for something.
At this point early in the Games distractions normally set in – a powerhouse nation winning many fewer medals than usual; a positive drug test and a medal stripped away; a favourite chokes. But that didn’t really happen.
As China built an early medal lead, the United States was trailing but its women were winning often – a story in itself. Michael Phelps lost but won often enough to seem more human and likeable, not just a great champion.
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