The medals at the 2012 London Olympics are the heaviest ever struck, which is well and proper because it is a heavy weight that will be borne by this city during these next two weeks.
As the Brits themselves would say, it will all kick off on Saturday. The opening ceremony will be done and all the complaints and missteps leading up to these Games will either be vanquished by the endeavours of athletes such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Yelena Isinbayeva, or magnified by continued transportation and security flops.
As Canadians, we know all too well what the Brits will be going through in these initial days. Fresh are our memories of the 2010 Vancouver Games, when until Alexandre Bilodeau thrust his arms in the air it was all ‘what ifs’ and ‘whens’. The sigh of relief – which became a shout when a kid from the Prairies named Jon Montgomery came down from the mountains and conquered Whistler with a gold medal and pitcher of beer – came from a country unsure about the notion of athletic excellence. How to cheer without becoming too American? How to shake a person’s hand and buy them a beer and want to rip their heart out on some rink or hill all at the same time?
It’s different over here. This is not a youngish country trying to find its sea-legs on the international sports landscape. It is rather a much-beloved, huggable older relative – a bit dusty, still wearing clothes that are a little tight from a kind of mid-life crisis when ‘Cool Britannia’ was all the rage.
It is a country in the need of something good to happen. The Independent’s chief sportswriter and a personal favourite, James Lawton, had a domestic audience in mind when he wrote this week that: “We are talking about the possibility that Britain, when the party is over, will be making genuine strides away from the status of one of the sick nations of European and world sport.” But he left the shores of Britain when he added: “The indicators are not so good, it has to be accepted. Figures that were supposed to soar in the vital matter of coaching neglected young people have not been massaged into significant life. Indeed, the team of the great Olympic legacy has stalled to the point of embarrassing silence.”
All the talk leading up to the Games was about a colossal security failure resulting from misplaced faith in a private security firm - G4S failed to deliver on a contract that called for it to provide 23,700 personnel at various venues – and about this train that arrived late or didn’t arrive at all and these tickets to that event that didn’t arrive in time. The military was brought in to spare blushes, because security is no laughing matter to a city that lived through IRA bombings and saw 52 of its citizens killed by a co-ordinated series of terror attacks on its transit system during the morning rush hour of July 7, 2005. Mention 7/7 and people here will remind you it was just one day after London was awarded the games by the IOC.
But such is life when an open society opens its doors wider than ever to the world. Such is life when you make a deal with the IOC devil and the zealots who enforce its sponsorship policies; the folks who beaver around from venue to venue seeing “guerilla advertising” on a soft drink can. It’s a fact of like that for every LOCOG mis-step – putting the South Korean flag on the scoreboard instead of the North Korean flag, Lord Sebastien Coe’s remarkable suggestion that spectators might not want to wear the wrong brand of sneakers into a venue - or transportation cock-up, it is the tone-deaf IOC that will really get it wrong. Would any other organization fumble a tribute to slain Israeli athletes? No. But the fact is, all the blames comes down on the host city. That, too, is part of the deal.
Thank goodness, then, for the athletes. Phelps has seven races to add to his 16 career gold medals, the most of any male athlete and three away from bettering the 18 won by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. The men’s 100-metres will feature the greatest runner of his generation, Bolt, against his 22-year-old, training partner Yohan Blake. This is the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence and their athletes will plant their flag time and again on the Olympic Stadium track. History will also be made when a double amputee named The Blade Runner, South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius, will compete with able-bodied athletes in what could be a transformative moment. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are here, too. Enough said.
The Canadian Olympic Committee has targeted 20 medals and a 12th-place finish, and the nation’s eyes will be on the likes of Clara Hughes, our greatest female Olympian making a return to the Summer Games for the first time since 2000 in Sydney; Alexandre Despatie, a medal threat in the three-metre springboard despite a head injury suffered in June; kayaker Adam van Koeverden; boxer Mary Spencer; and our own strongman, big Dylan Armstrong from Kamloops. From this point on they are family and we have their back, but they must also surely know the bar has been raised because of the 2010 Vancouver gold rush. Strange how the Brits, our harshest critics in the early days of Vancouver, now want to be so much like us.