Friday, August 10, 2012

Get Evolved: My'Lympics

Our Olympic stretch started in 2005 with the now-typically-British faux celebratory derangement of Kelly Holmes et al as the IOC awarded London the 2012 games. Locog said they’d build it, from the infrastructure to the signature new venues by starchitects and egos such as Hadid and Kapoor, at a cost of £2.4bn (but you could quintuple that by the arrival of the games), and we would come, ready to be fleeced by premier brands but also Inspired. A huge swathe of post-industrial east London between Hackney Wick and Stratford had to be ripped up and started on again to the dismay of the likes of Iain Sinclair, eager to preseve the area’s 'ghost milk', and to most economists who searched hard for any real-economy benefits of this huge redevelopment. With #legacy and #sustainability the subject of endless satire in BBC comedy 2012, they couldn't even agree which football team would take over the stadium after the games. Such events are nothing if not huge projections of a city's ambitions, and presentation would take precedence over substance every time. Ringpieces turned up on every available surface.

The transformation continued with the whole city being put on highly ceremonious lockdown. Further implementation of the security state had arrived, as was queasily evident at places like Oxley Wood, Blackheath and Deptford Creek, although there was no time for the security forces to plant a genuine terrorist outrage and thus Londoners could go about their business (probably working from home) relatively paranoia-free for the fortnight.

If only the heavily outsourced operation could find enough people willing to front for the likes of G4S. The fiasco played out over a few days (and was hot on the heels of many on workfare being made to sleep under London Bridge for their Jubilee shift), but of course their fatcat fatcunt CEO Nick Buckles didn’t go. Instead our brave boys, alongside regional police forces etc, stepped in, which is how we would prefer our major events to be policed anyway. Every time the ever professional Lord Coe turned Tory addiction to cutting corners into a positive in his ruling-class art of deception. Another key stakeholder, London mayor and conservative saviour Boris Johnson, would spend 10 minutes marooned on a zipwire too but as is usual brushed off the humiliation, while culture secretary Jeremy Rhymeswithcunt was intent on throwing a bell at the nearest bystander.

A week before the opening ceremony and I could no longer avoid the spectacle before the spectacle, as my wife’s school steel band were doing a turn at a show marking the Torch's arrival at Hackney Town Hall. That meant the twins and I were incarcerated in the pen of ‘related to vaguely importants’ in front of the hall for four and a bit hours as various school bands and local hipsters played. Cheap plastic drum tat doled out to children by brand police from Samsung and Coca-Cola ruined some songs. A hippy guy's rabbit kept the kids amused, all the while as the hippy got annoyed with the kids (might be an idea not to bring the rabbit?). In a long-winded route, virtually every ‘community’ would experience the bounce in mood that the torch procession could supposedly deliver, but Hackney, hyped up by the likes of local hero MC Kat B (there he is with a King Kong) went one louder, the chosen runner coming in off a packed Mare Street to a cacophony of Rocky music. After that cultural gulag we fully deserved a trip to our favourite ocakbasi in Dalston, itself in the grip of post procession fever to go with the usual urban hipster Barleyism.

A week later the ceremony arrived and people were fair agog, in a good way. Danny Boyle played a blinder, we were told by the crack BBC cultural trio of Hazel Irvine, Trevor Nelson and Huw Edwards. The verve, the daring, the imagination, the broad historical sweep, the defence of the NHS. My early tweets weren’t too praiseworthy - I got annoyed by the incongruity of kids up in the air in hospital beds and missed the wider theme. Eventually it got to the music and I was on a surer footing, our boy Dizzee did his Bonkers turn and Britain was pleased (if that was rereleased it would hit No 1 again which would really piss off Wiley), as with the subsequent parade of the participating nations, where countries would be booed, cheered or explained about to my fast-fading partner as appropriate. It was left to the former middle distance runner to bat off the criticisms and deliver a stout if rather shaky-headed address ahead of IOC chief Rogge himself. Ultimately, commentariats both amateur and professional were happy to claim this as the “people’s” event, in contrast with the topdown and deeply offensive Keep Calm and Get Folksy excess of the Jubilee (I was so glad the weather tanked for their boat pageant, and just how bad bar a few acts such as Grace Jones were). It was telling then that the show took place the same night as scores of cyclists on their monthly critical mass were arrested for riding in the Zil Lanes, underlining the reality of the lockdown as people revelled at the Olympic Park.
For two decades or so we've had Hirst, Boyle and the like offering their brand of often meaningless but commercially potent hyperrealism, and what the ceremony showed was how important those creative industries are as exports and to our self image. If it was a good portent of the games to come, we now had to get our Sport on. And GB did, amassing a whopping 29 golds, albeit many in the middle class, might-is-right brutish sports like rowing and sailing. But there were notable successes too for left leaning multicultis via Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis in more populist events.

I went with the family and inlaws for one day. We watched quarter final handball in the basketball arena between Hungary and Iceland, which was fairly exciting for involving a last minute missed penalty that would have confirmed Iceland’s win, then a last-second equaliser enabling the Magyars' extra-time victory.

Major error after that was getting sucked into Coca-Cola’s ‘Beatbox’. Our failure was to recognize that although all these events are hyperbranded and often funded by the titans of the corporate world, some of those are more involved than others and some are more relentless about ramming home their brand (as if we could ever forget!). This was their spurious effort to develop young "future flames", who it was suggested would be athletes of the future but were more like young wannabee Brit School celebs. The interactive immersive bit was ok, Mark Ronson and Katy B’s samples of the sounds of various sports were there to bash and loop on plastic boards (the song itself though, yeeuch). But after that came a prolonged and dreadful ‘go partay with a bottla coke and our future flames' finale which was responsible for the queue in the first place. Now go tweet the image of you with a torch. Facebonk it! Instagram it! Get memetic - just connect!
As my sister-in-law kept saying with increasing alarm, there was something coca-cultish about this deeply disturbing brand excess. After avoiding the retail con by bringing our own lunch, we slumped here and slumped bad. By the end, we were fair desperate to get out of the pitch black, windowless circular venue we were locked in.

After that there was more wondering round and more annoyance at the trudging pace in baking hot festival-like conditions until I had to activate my plan to get out of there (I walked past the Orbit and concurred with Grace Dent's comment that it is 'neither tall enough to be exciting nor pretty enough to want a picture beside'). See you at the restaurant, via a lovely canal walk after I had finally managed to get out of the enclosure via the Greenway.

The dreadful closing ceremony featuring a profusion of 90s music dinosaurs as well as the usual suspects like McCartney, Queen, Muse, etc brought Britons back down to earth, our infamous cynicism returning to replace the enthusiasm, and may have even wiped the smiles off the 70,000 volunteers. [These events have surely shown that if the old guys' voices have gone, then they shouldn't be playing.] The faintly pleasing sight of the Spice Girls or Madness dying on stage told us the party was over and reality was returning.
Such worldscale events depend on massive organisation but Britain took an obsessive and damaging approach to sweeping our problems under the carpet to ensure the Games passed by as intended. We were assured the Games would deliver a positive legacy - better equality and opportunity, upwardly socially engineered society, improved health and fitness though greater participation in sport - overestimating the role such a jamboree can have. More realistically, the event was also seen as one big ‘party’ (another Brit specialty) and we were praised for learning how to be friendly to each other again! Yet most games events are highly individualised pursuits and, as the first bitter tweet from the Greek female high jumper to various outbreaks of badly-disguised racism over black athletes showed, sport can be as effective a host as any for dodgy attitudes. Lessons for our overpriced Premiership bad boys? Maybe. The transformation of this east London zone is also likely only to end up as another middle-class enclave (very much like the games themselves due to expensive and often clueless ticketing processes), a kind of Dubai in E20.

As each Brit won gold the mantras got louder and mutated: Get Involved became Get Evolved, Coubertin's taking part became it's the winning and the taking part. The 'Olympic bounce' may yet produce a few more decades of relative athletic overachievement, but don't expect too much post-riot healing or social uplift as for governments the games carry much wider functions.

(Pics mostly my own with the odd exception)

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