British athletes often described their experience of the London Olympics as “surreal”. They have been told that this is not strictly correct, unless they crossed the finishing line with a fish stapled to their heads. But you know what they mean. It’s felt both vividly real and strangely unreal at the same time. It’s been the same for people who live in London. The Olympics happen somewhere else, in faraway places. We’ve watched them on TV for decades. Can they really have been taking place just a few stops along the railway line? It doesn’t seem quite right. When the words “Olympic Stadium” flashed up during the TV coverage, I instinctively thought of somewhere overseas. Even the captions looked a little foreign. Were these nights of glittering athletics really coming from East London, not Berlin, Stockholm or Zurich?
But it was definitely here. We saw the Olympic rings and bright pink signs all over the city. We wandered in the bewildering new world known as the Olympic Park that had risen from an industrial wasteland. We saw extraordinary feats of athleticism and determination. We had a ball. We cried, yelled and despaired. We became enthused by sports we had never seen before. “Women’s handball on BBC 2 now!” is a text message I never thought I’d send.
The sheer intensity of the experience added to the strangeness. Many normal years of exhausting sporting drama were compressed into two weeks, befuddling our senses of proportion and time. Did Andy Murray really beat Roger Federer in a final at Wimbledon? And can that really have been only a week ago? So much has happened since then that it feels almost like a minor event from another era.
We have also been at the centre of a massive mind control exercise. The state broadcaster has manipulated our emotions with slick propaganda (and some of it has really been beautifully slick) on multiple TV channels and radio stations as well as the internet, incessantly pumping out the message that this is all truly amazing. We have been introduced to British athletes we did not know and felt ourselves feeling desperately connected to them only moments later. Advertising everywhere from billboards to chocolate bars has ensured there is no escape. Our systems have been shot through with a nerve-scrubbing, red, white and blue concoction of delirious excitement. Now suddenly someone has yanked out the needle. And that feels strange too. The skies have turned grey, the TV is back to normal and it’s an ordinary London day again.
If you have been to some exotic or interesting place as a journalist, people ask you afterwards: “What was it like?” I used to feel indignant about that. Read my stories, I’d think, then you’ll know what it was like. But I came to understand that news stories don’t do a great job of telling people “what it’s like”. They’re mainly about fitting quotes and facts into boxes. Good journalists try to give a sense of atmosphere and “local colour” but it’s hard to convey an experience completely. This blog has been an experiment, an attempt to transmit a little of what it’s been like to be a spectator and London resident during the Olympics through words, images and sounds.
It’s been great, it’s been moving, it’s been strange, it’s been ridiculous. It’s been part corporate mega-event, part giant love-in with a sporting theme.
I like to think the blog itself has been a bit like the Olympics. People from many nations have found their way here — more than 40 countries, apparently, from Chile to Malaysia. However you got here, whether it was because I badgered you into looking, because a friend recommended the site or because you typed “bongo cam Eton Dorney” or “how to make a Wenlock costume” into a search engine, thank you for stopping by. Special thanks to all those who have provided material for posts, ideas and feedback.
The blog is called Dispatches from 2012 because my experience of previous Olympics is that they’re almost like a foreign country or another planet. I’ve enjoyed creating these dispatches from Olympic London and hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.
Inexplicably, the International Olympic Committee has not seen fit to bestow a medal on this blog but readers may be relieved to know that I have procured my own reward for my services to the Olympic movement — a chocolate Wenlock.