Tuesday, September 11, 2012

And so it ends ...

... this glorious British summer. Not glorious weather, which for much of the summer has done its damp and miserable worst - though it did stop raining for most of the Olympics - but other than that, what a time we have had! The diamond jubilee celebrations, the Olympics, the Paralympics ... the whole wonderful series ended with the closing ceremony of the Paralympics on Sunday and the athletes' parade through London yesterday, and there was even the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday thrown in for good measure. 

As the summer comes to an end it feels as though the whole country has a deeper, happier, more confident sense of what it means to be British in the 21st century than it did just a few months ago. The British, and in particular the English, tend to be reluctant to indulge in displays of patriotism. We aren't great at either flying the flag or expressing what this country means to us. A combination of self-deprecation and cynicism makes it easy for us to underestimate all the good stuff that goes with living in Britain. This summer has changed that. We celebrated the Queen's sixty years as head of state, and in doing so looked at our nation a little closer and stood a bit taller. We put on a truly GREAT Olympic games. Then we topped that with undoubtedly the best Paralympics ever. Beforehand we thought of the coming Olympics with a mix of excitement and nerves, hoping for the best but half-expecting it all to go pear-shaped. But it didn't. It turned out to be a glorious sporting party, just what we needed to lift the national mood and distract us from the economic gloom. Suddenly we feel that Britain really is Great Britain again. It feels as though we have collectively won a gold medal, one that we hoped for but didn't really expect to achieve.

I didn't go to any of the Olympic or Paralympic events but even so I felt the buzz, both from the television coverage and from the second hand experiences of friends who got tickets. From what I hear everything went remarkably smoothly, with a friendly atmosphere fostered by the 70,000 volunteers who acted as games makers. The noise in the stadiums was deafening (Rose, who is sensitive to loud noise, would most definitely not have coped!). The whole thing just worked

As for the sport, it was extraordinary to see the medals racking up for Team GB. I am old enough to remember the days when the Olympics meant an endless series of glorious, or less than glorious, defeats for British athletes. In those days gold medals were few and far between - at Atlanta in 1996 we won just one! At Beijing we managed 19 and in London an astonishing 29, finishing 3rd in the medal table behind the US and China. Extraordinary! The last time that happened was in 1920. By the time the Olympics ended we had a whole string of new sporting heros. If I had to pick a favourite moment I think it would be Mo Farah winning his second gold of the games and celebrating with the amazing Usain Bolt. 

Then there were the Paralympics. I missed the early stages as we were still away and didn't manage to catch as much as I would have liked as last week was busy, but what I did see was wonderful. Again, friends who went said the atmosphere was simply amazing. And inspirational, watching the athletes who had to compete not just against each other but against their own disabilities. By the end of the games we had been given a whole new language of sport - blade runners, goalball, wheelchair tennis - and yet more new heros. 

And now it is all over, though with a postscript last night as Andy Murray became the first British man to win a Grand Slam tennis tournament since 1936 with his victory in New York. One of the catchwords of the Olympics was legacy. Quite how that will eventually play out I don't know, but for now I have been left with the sense that something, somehow, is better than it was before.

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