Voices: Ten years after the Olympics opened, we’re still wondering: Who are we?

·9-min read
Voices: Ten years after the Olympics opened, we’re still wondering: Who are we?

In a hired studio space in the London Docklands, nervous glances were being exchanged among the London Olympic press pack. It was 27 January 2012. Six months to go. Danny Boyle had summoned us there, and as he stood over a small model of the Olympic Stadium, done up to look like a field with some sheep in, an imitation Glastonbury Tor at one end and some cotton wool clouds suspended from wire thread, there was a sense of gentle panic among those present.

Was this really it? A field with sheep? All this was underpinned by that typical feeling of British pessimism, but not without good reason.

We all knew the unimaginable extravagance of Beijing could not possibly be surpassed. We also knew that, a month earlier, David Cameron had seen the plans for the opening ceremony and his response had been to immediately double the budget. He was well into his austerity drive by this point. If he’d concluded more money would have to be found for drama students to fanny about in costume as a matter of national emergency, well, it didn’t necessarily bode well.

What we didn’t yet know was that 2012 was shaping up to be what is still the wettest year in UK history. Between that January day and the six months that would follow it, it simply did not stop raining. Quite possibly not once.

In the weeks before the games, ticket holders were being advised to bring wellington boots and ponchos. There were fears that some venues, like the equestrian centre at Greenwich Park, would become Glastonbury-style quagmires.

Kim Gavin, who directed the closing ceremony, was quietly letting it be known that he had been watching videos of open-air rock concerts besieged by rain for ideas on how they might not be ruined. Things that performers could say to lighten the mood, to compel the soaked spectators not to kill the vibe.

It’s probably been forgotten now that a week before the games began, the clouds parted and London had one of its most magnificent weeks of summer weather – the only one of the year.

Seb Coe and David Cameron held a press conference on the concourse outside the stadium. For whatever reason, I was quite possibly the only attendee who had brought sun cream with them. It was passed around with such feverish intensity that it came back almost entirely empty. I have since been informed that some of my Boots Soltan Factor 15 even found its way on to the prime ministerial visage.

Walking to the stadium, exactly 10 years ago, there was a sense that not many of those present had ever felt before. Of being at the very centre of the world. And the centre of the world was a very forgettable bit of London, that a few years before had been an industrial wasteland.

And, taking our seats, there spread out before us was that field with sheep. Not miniature this time, but really rather massive.

There was a Victorian-looking chap playing cricket. Down at the far end, Glastonbury Tor looked kind of OK. Then it started to rain. Hard. The press seats have waterproof covers that can be pulled over TVs and laptops. Many reporters pulled them over their heads as well.

That was that, then. A washout. A disaster. And then, after about five minutes at the very most, it just stopped.

Few things have ever been discussed in more overblown terms than that night in Stratford, but nevertheless I do not consider it too over the top to say that had that passing shower stuck around, the cultural history of Britain in the 21st century would have been very different indeed.

In the decades before London 2012, there were few more popular British pastimes than for British people to write books about what it means to be British – or more commonly, English. AA Gill had a go in 2006. Jeremy Paxman did the same a year later, to name but two.

That so many books could be written on the same nebulous topic is precisely because the question can never actually be answered.

In the decade since 2012, there have not been quite so many books on the subject, having been replaced by what feels like an even larger cottage industry, which is writing endlessly about the opening ceremony itself. One imagines, hopes even, that this 10-year anniversary might be the point at which that too may be permitted to subside into history.

There is precious little that remains unsaid. On a personal note, the most memorable moment of the night was when the pre-recorded video rolled on the big screens and Daniel Craig emerged from a helicopter and strolled into Buckingham Palace. I knew exactly what was coming, but with a sense of slight horror. Four months previously, The Sun on Sunday had run a full-page story on how the Queen would declare the games open by jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond. But the date was 1 April. I, like many others, decided not to follow it up.

Every Olympic opening ceremony is essentially the same. The host nation treats itself to the luxury of telling the world its national story, with as much imagination and audacity as it can manage. Beijing had an entire dance routine on how China had invented paper. Sochi had a War and Peace ballet dance.

Danny Boyle had already told us that he knew it would be futile to try and compete with Beijing, but he hoped he might be able to bring more “humanity” to bear on the night. That he might be able to celebrate “the British sense of humour”.

In the end, Boyle and his co-creator Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s singular moment of genius was to tell a story of Britain that was not about Beefeaters and the Magna Carta, but was centred on the way we live now (or rather, then). It was not a patient accumulation of British achievements. It was not about what Britain means, it was about how it feels.

Great Britain’s gifts to the world are many, even if a great deal of them were dealt out by force. But British people don’t go about their daily lives with a sense of wonder and delight about how, long ago, it was one of them who can claim to have invented the steam engine, or the jet engine or the search engine.

Yes there was Shakespeare, Caliban’s soliloquy from The Tempest, to be exact. Its opening lines were carved into a giant bell, forged at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry down the road, that was rung by Bradley Wiggins, who’d just become the UK’s first Tour de France winner in a hundred years. (Back then, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which also forged Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, was the oldest continually operating business in Europe. In 2017 it shut down.)

And yes there was the Industrial Revolution, but there was also the doof-doofs from Eastenders and the lesbian kiss from Brookside. But the segment that still lingers longest was the lengthy and frankly magnificent celebration of British pop and rock music.

Most national stories, aside from the political upheavals, revolve around inventions or ideas that have changed human life, or the enlightened geniuses of high culture that, if we’re brave enough to admit it, don’t necessarily bear down that much upon our everyday lives.

But that 60-year run-through of pop and rock music, from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols (played while Her Majesty the Queen was in her seat), to the Arctic Monkeys and Dizzee Rascal: that was not done merely to make people feel proud. It made them feel incredible. It was not done to elicit a sense of national achievement: it was done to elicit raw, unbridled joy, and it most certainly did so.

In the fortnight that followed, the country could not stop asking itself the question about what all this was saying about Who We Are? It was highly convenient that the person who should emerge as the hero of that fortnight was a man called Mohamed, who was brought here as a child, who talked like a Londoner and ran like the wind.

And it is certainly reasonable to ask what it says about Who We Are now, that Mo Farah has chosen this moment to reveal that he has always known that was never his name. That he had been trafficked, and had felt he had little choice but to live a very public lie.

It is more than a little bit depressing that Farah’s recent revelations have done absolutely nothing to dampen the viciousness of the contest to choose the next prime minister, in which both candidates are outbidding each other over who can be the cruellest to asylum seekers. Over who will deport the most to Rwanda, and who will worry the least about the clear evidence that the policy is almost certainly illegal and practically impossible.

It has become fashionable, in the years since, to point out that Cameron and Osborne had already brought in the bedroom tax, that the pernicious treatment of disabled people was already well underway.

It has become popular to argue that that magic night under the lights was, looking back, little more than Britain running through thin air like Wile E Coyote, already over the cliff edge and about to plummet downwards.

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It is even suggested that Boyle should have done more to reflect reality. As if it is the job of an Olympic opening ceremony to lambast the host government. As if that was the moment, in front of a watching world, to start confronting hard truths about empire. No chance. It’s never happened before and it certainly never will.

Danny Boyle’s idealised vision of Britain is no more real or unreal or distant now than it was then. It was always only an aspiration, a montage of the best, with the worst quietly ignored. That’s how it should be.

It should also not be forgotten that within weeks, George Osborne became quite possibly the first person to be publicly humiliated at a Paralympic Games. He was booed by 70,000 people while handing out medals, precisely because of his government’s vicious cuts that disproportionately targeted disabled people.

That should be evidence enough that 2012 was not some utopia from which we have now fallen. It was a dream, even then. And 10 years on, we still have not stopped crying to dream again.

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