Olympic athletes and spectators arriving in London last week might have felt a tad underwhelmed by the attitude of the locals towards the world’s greatest sporting spectacle. But they needn’t have taken it personally. The British respond in the same sequence to all major events, and the Olympics are no exception: indifference mixed with cynicism, then hostility, followed by resignation, and finally, in the nick of time, huge excitement.
The first phase was reached around Easter, with people declaring their intention to “escape the Olympics,” like it was a noxious gas. Such folk saw themselves as smart and discerning by booking vacations to coincide with the Games, as far away from Britain as possible. They did the same during the Royal Wedding last year, and then felt crestfallen on their return when conversations about Kate’s dress and Pippa’s bottom left them none the wiser.
The second phase, hostility, kicked in this month, at the news that a company called G4S, contracted to supply security staff to various Olympic venues, had badly screwed up. It turns out that G4S won’t now be able to provide many security people at all, which has forced the government to draft in thousands of army personnel to fill the void. If anything, this should be relief. Most people would rather be protected from terrorists by soldiers trained to fight the Taliban than a bunch of hastily recruited novices. But not some of the British, who took the opportunity to write off the Olympics as a colossal, imminent, rain-soaked disaster.
Hostility muscles were also flexed after the Olympic Route Network took effect. This is the perfectly sensible scheme that reserves certain road lanes throughout London’s main routes so that athletes, dignitaries and officials get to their events on time. The alternative would have been Usain Bolt fighting his way through London’s overcrowded underground system to get to the 100m final, and visiting heads of state jostling for road space with the number 37 bus. But that’s not how the British see it. “Traffic gridlock,” screamed London’s Evening Standard on Monday. “Drivers face games lanes woe,” mewed the Sun.
And now we see phase three, resignation. This is characterized by utterances such as: “I suppose I’ll watch a bit of it on TV,” and “we won’t win any gold medals, you know.” Cheerful things like that.
Lord Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee, is trying his best to make Londoners get into the party spirit before the Games begin. But the guy tends to overplay his hand, describing every minor event in the Olympic build-up as “remarkable” and “extraordinary” — including the rather pedestrian arrival of the Olympic flame at the Tower of London last Friday. People just tune him out.
London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, has been more effective, imploring the nation to snap out of its “Olympo-funk” and revel in “the greatest show on earth in the greatest city on earth.” (Incidentally, Londoners themselves don’t talk about their city in such grandiose terms, but clearly they like to elect people who do.)
The fact that Boris has resorted to this panicky exhortation shows that the British people are comfortably winning what amounts to a childish game of “chicken” with their own leaders. It’s a national pastime.
Actually, Boris shouldn’t worry — everything will be alright once the show starts. Even the weather. It’s been a miserable summer, but last weekend the country awoke to blue skies and temperatures approaching balmy. With a bit of luck, it’ll be a sunny Olympics. Many of London’s attractions have been given a sparkling makeover. Even Covent Garden, resembling a building site two months ago, is now spick-and-span and teeming with international flavors and accents. And as for the sports, the plucky British squad might also be reaching a timely peak, with Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France cycle race by a handsome margin on Sunday.
It’s all cause for national good cheer, and the mood is set to rise with the mercury. Given a classy opening ceremony, the country might sprint through resignation towards glorious excitement.
Americans who travel to Britain regularly will know that its people’s reputation for being understated can be well deserved. So it is perhaps appropriate that the stiff Brits should again be hosting the Austerity Olympics, just as they did in 1948. Economic realities mean that London’s Games are unlikely to go down in Olympic history as the best ever, with little chance of rivaling L.A.’s swagger, Sydney’s cool, or Beijing’s opulence. Half-way down the medals table is more Britain’s style.
But the country is capable of putting on a show if it really tries. And it seems, at last, to be readying itself to make a grand late entrance to its own Olympic party. The British are coming.