It’s the Oh-lympics!

I could quite get used to this.  The Olympics, that is.

After 7 years of anticipation and media hype, the London 2012 Olympics are finally here, in all their once-in-a-lifetime glory.

Olympic torch, St Albans ©Adam Dickens

And there really is quite a buzz about the place (St Albans is only 30 miles away from the Olympic park).

I’m not exactly a sporty type, but I love a party, general excitement and overt enthusiasm (not very British, but, well, that’s because I’m only half British).

Two events have really got my Olympic juices going, and in such a way as to turn me into quite a Proud to be British kind of gal. Something I’m not accustomed to.  You can put it down to the Oh-so-Amazing Opening Ceremony and being lucky enough to get tickets to one of the sporting events.

Lets start with the Opening Ceremony. Oh boy, what a performance!  It had us guessing, gawping, gasping and giggling in fits at you know who followed by dancing crazily around the room for 10 mins to the medley of British rock. Incredibly, this burst of exuberance at 10.30 at night was initiated by my 5 yr old son who i’ve never known to spontaneously burst into dance. The boy never stays up later than 8pm.

It was visually stunning, quirky, surprising, and breathtaking in its originality and sheer spectacle. Those fireworks. That ‘cauldron’. Those Mary Poppins’ descending out of the sky (got to get one of those umbrellas). A beaming Beckham cruising up the Thames like 007.  And the Queen/Bond scene….

Mary Poppins drop in to Olympic Opening Ceremony ©

What I particularly loved about it was the way it didn’t focus on the obvious – Kings & Queens, old houses, our obsession with the weather and pets. It took you by surprise and then some.

I also loved the way the NHS got such a a fantastic proverbial handclap when it normally suffers regular lambasting and denigration from politicians and patients. Children exuberantly bouncing on their beds and real nurses twirling to jive tunes sent a powerful message about the need to be thankful for something that is unique and life giving, even if imperfect.

Ok, the industrial scene probably went on too long, and the ‘soap opera’ section was definitely too complex for most British audiences let alone the rest of the world. For sure, there was a distinct lack of daleks, nor a celebration of our vibrant NGO and academic sector that has led the world in environment and social justice campaigns (Jubilee 2000 for one).  And the Queen? Do you think she’d rather have been elsewhere (bed, perhaps?)

It was also the first big event I’ve watched ‘with’ friends via Facebook. Being the age where we have to be at home with the kids, Facebook gave us a great way of enjoying it with other friends scattered around the town, country and the world. I was too riveted to post messages throughout the performance, but once the teams started processing, it redeemed an otherwise tedious and anti-climatic event. ‘Czech out those wellies!’, ‘Micronesia? Now that’s made up!’, to guessing how many countries begin with G, and then being gently reminded by Australian friends that GB would be on last being the host.

I went to bed singing ‘Oh Danny Boyle we love you so’ to the tune of ‘Oh Danny Boy’….

And then came our chance to enjoy watching some of the sport itself. Wait for it…..the Canoe Slalom – heats.

Riding the waves – the incredibly tough course at Lee Valley

Ok, I’m not exactly a canoe slalom fan. The closest I’ve come to it is rafting down the white waters of the Zambesi river 15 years ago with 7 other strangers. That was quite a ride and made me appreciate how darn difficult the course was for those canoeists at the Lee Valley White Water Centre.

It’s not the sort of sport that gets you jumping in your seat and screaming, well, certainly not when its just the heats, with all 22 competitors each getting 2 gos, one at a time, obviously, against the clock. Same again for the kayakers. Nothing like the crazy wild excitement of the double canoeing today when our men won Gold and Silver.

But I came away having had a really enjoyable day. And I realised that the reason why was   the very friendly and welcoming atmosphere created by the volunteers, and the brilliant way it was organised.

Every volunteer was disarmingly smiley and helpful, and genuinely so, you know, not the forced corporate smultz you can get across the Pond. I could’ve hugged the volunteer who suggested we get our water from the loo taps instead of queuing at the meagre 3 water fountains where long, patient queues of Brits waited, before queuing yet again for a coffee, tea or hog roast. The queues were probably the biggest downer of the day. But then, Brits don’t half queue well. Look, here’s a picture of them.  All being very patient and pleasant about it. The foreigners from visiting countries didn’t bother I think, rather like us.

Queuing for water – in a very British orderly fashion

When we left, I counted no less than 6 volunteers who made the effort to wish us a safe journey home – to the extent that I almost wanted to say, ‘Its ok, your colleagues have already wished us a safe journey 5 times!’.   Even the female army corporal who searched me at security was jovial. And the firemen and policemen stationed on the neighbouring canal were in such low demand, that they were very relaxed.

The effect of all this has been to bring on a rather unfamiliar sentiment. That’s it. I felt overtly proud to be British!

Those who know me know that I’ve spent a lot of time studying and living in foreign climes. I’m a bit of an ‘internationalist’, plus my father was Irish which explains my rather un-English attributes (expressive, loud, argumentative). There’s much I love about my home country, and I miss it when I’m away, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of being British.

I’ve always associated it with narrow minded, St George’s flag bearers, those who lambast the French for being smelly, or call foreigners ‘ethnic’ types. I know, stereo-types in themselves, which I shouldn’t be so guilty of.

But it’s part of what our generation has grown up trying to fob off – jingo-ism, racism, and misplaced, patronising colonialism. But I reckon for too long our generation has acted as Apology Ambassador to the rest of the formerly colonised world in our gap years and beyond.  Yes, Great Britain did some really very un-great things in its colonial past, but you’d be surprised how many people in countries like India and Uganda are at pains to tell me all the wonderful things that the British have brought – education, legal, political system, transport, the church.

Being proud of your own culture shouldn’t have to be synonomous with jingo-ism or the contemporary far-right.  Nor should it imply approval of everything about our culture (pervasive cynicism and that great British reserve being two of my least favourite!) let alone our past misdemeanours.  No country has a clean sheet, even if some are cleaner than others (Scandanavians are up there on the Be Nice to Other Countries chart). As Gore Vidal, the American author who died yesterday said, “A person who loves his country is plain stupid!” By the same token, a certain level of national pride in what is good shouldn’t prohibit us from enthusiastically valuing and honouring other cultures for the wonderful values and traditions they bring to the world stage. That, in my view, would be plain stupid.

And besides, being ‘British’ and all that means is changing. It no longer implies exclusivity or superiority. Danny Boyle’s show reminded us of how one country’s heritage can be so many other’s in the interconnected world that we live in – being British has never been so ‘international’.

Having the world come and live on our doorstep for a couple of weeks makes a country look at what it does have that is worth celebrating – in all its quirky, organised, multicultural, creative, efficient glory.  Let’s celebrate it, and not be ashamed.

National flags of the world at Lee Valley Park


3 thoughts on “It’s the Oh-lympics!

  1. Siobhan! You have summed it up perfectly! We need to celebrate being British! I am certainly doing that even though I am on the other side of the world! Love this piece of work! So! When are you going to get a job in journalism of some kind? Lots of love to you. Xxx
    Sabeel xx

    • Thanks Bils! Chuffed you like it. To be honest, I was almost not going to post this as I’ve written it in ‘kids at home holiday fog’ so wasn’t entirely sure I’d conveyed what I wanted to say about Brit pride and all that, so its good to get encouragement. Bet you’re missing England at the mo. Big hugs to you too! x

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