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Friday, 13 July 2012

13 July 2012


Perhaps you remember -- I'm afraid I don't -- whether four years ago, just before the start of the Beijing Olympics, were the Chinese media full of stories about how the 2008 Games were set to be a total disaster?

Somehow, I doubt it. It doesn't really seem their style, does it?

What about the Greek media in 2004? (I know our media were scathing about Athens preparations, or lack thereof, but the Greeks themselves?)

Or the Australians ahead of the 2000 Games in Sydney? My hunch is -- and I admit I haven't gone back and checked -- that the general tone of their pre-Games media coverage would have been along the lines of: "Fingers crossed, let's hope it's all going to be great."

The British media seem to prefer a different approach. Here the tone is more like: "We always knew it'd be a disaster, and, oh look, it is."

Take this morning's headlines: "Olympic security farce" (Daily Telegraph);  … "Olympic security chaos" (The Times); "Fury after G4S falls short" (Financial Times). You get the general idea.

Is there something in the British character that prefers things to turn out badly? Whenever the sun shines (if it ever does again), do we feel happiest when we mutter darkly: "Yes, but they say it'll rain tomorrow …"?

Do we somehow feel more comfortable when our sporting heroes fail to win than when they do? Is that why we all went "Aaah!" when Andy Murray sobbed on Centre Court at Wimbledon having lost the men's final to Roger Federer?

(And before you all yell at me, yes, I do know that Bradley Wiggins is doing exceptionally well in the Tour de France.)

But I wonder how we'll react if -- sorry, when -- British Olympic competitors start winning medals. The front pages will, I'm sure, be covered in triumphant pictures of them, proudly draped in the Union flag -- but deep down, will we still warm more readily to the gallant loser than to the fist-pumping winner?

It's long been remarked that the British seem to be far happier with bumbling amateurs than with ruthless professionals. Our national slogan could be those oft-quoted lines: "It's not that you won or lost, but how you played the game."

And now I have to admit something: I always thought those lines came from an English public school motto. But now, after a bit of research, I discover that in fact they come from a poem called "Alumnus Football", written in 1908 by Grantland Rice, who was an American sports writer.

The poem is about an American college footballer called Bill Jones, and it ends with the lines: "Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine, Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line; For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game."

But back to the London Olympics. Ever since our capital city was awarded the Games in 2005 (was it really seven years ago?), I've been surrounded by fellow-Londoners gaily predicting disaster and mayhem. I long ago formed the distinct impression that many of them would be sorely disappointed if the whole thing turned out to be the most wonderful success.

So where are we now, with just two weeks to go? Well, the company that was meant to be providing much of the security seems to have fallen woefully short.

The M4 motorway, which is the main route into London from Heathrow airport, was shut for five days because of cracks in an elevated section of the highway (it has now reopened -- fingers crossed that they find no more cracks).

Long queues of impatient travellers are reported again at immigration control at Heathrow.

And the London Underground system reportedly creaked under the strain of a test exercise on Monday designed to simulate Olympic conditions.

On the other hand: London hotels are reported to be slashing their prices because they still have plenty of rooms available for the Olympics.

And the Games organisers keep making more tickets available to the general public, apparently because far fewer people than expected have been gobbling them up ahead of time.

So here's my prediction. Only the competitors and their coaches will turn up (all right, a few thousand officials may tag along as well). The hotels will be empty, and the Underground trains will be blissfully free of confused visitors from overseas.

Disappointed sellers of tatty souvenirs will declare the whole thing a disaster. Everyone else will be mightily relieved. British athletes will win a modest but respectable clutch of medals, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will declare himself Mayor for Life.

There again, perhaps it'll pour with rain every day, the Underground trains will break down, and the mobile phone and internet networks will collapse.

I wonder which would make you happier.

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