Olympics, politics and me

IssueSeptember 2012
Feature by Virginia Moffatt

Munich 1972. I am seven, enthralled by Korbut’s gymnastics, Spitz’s seven golds for swimming. This is the first time I’m old enough to get the Olympics. I am vaguely aware something bad has happened to some Israeli athletes, but too young to realise that politics and the Olympics go hand in hand.

Moscow 1980. I am 15, old enough to understand the US is asking us to join their boycott (because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan) but young enough not to know what I think. I do know the sport is wonderful. I am totally absorbed with the middle distance rivalry between Steve Ovett and Seb Coe. My love affair with running begins.

Sydney 2000. I am 35. I sit breastfeeding my new baby, Claire, watching the athletics on a tiny black and white screen. The GB team does well, but my highlight is Cathy Freeman storming to win the 400m and wrapping herself in the Aboriginal flag afterwards. Politics and the Games uniting in a wonderful expression of self-identity.

London 2012. I am 47. For years I have dreamt of the Olympics coming to my home city. But now they are approaching, I am not so sure. Newham is becoming unaffordable for local people.The tickets are overpriced so we don’t apply. The list of unethical sponsors grows by the day: BP, Dow, Coke and Atos Origin. At the Olympic sites, security guards detain photographers. A Leytonstone man is served an Asbo for campaigning to keep his park. After G4S fails to recruit enough staff, the army are brought in to provide security. No one points out that the soldiers just back from Afghanistan are part of an occupation force that has been there longer than the Russians. We are not threatened with boycotts but the possibility of terrorism. In response the government puts missiles on residential roofs. Politics and the Games again, in the worst possible way. I am beginning to dread them.

On 27 July, I am in London unexpectedly. I find myself on the train line to Stratford. The train stops by the Olympic Stadium, prompting me to stand up and read from The Atos Monologues (by the Atos Stories Collective). I tell the carriage about Karen Sherlock, a severely ill woman, who spent all year appealing for reinstatement of her benefits. I tell them that two weeks after she won her appeal, she died. I sit down again. Nobody responds. I continue my journey.

But hope rises as we watch the opening ceremony: the Queen is pushed out of an aeroplane; the NHS defends attacks from Voldemort; Tim Berners Lee; Doreen Lawrence; Shami Chakrabati. A point is being made – with wit and beautiful artistry. Outside the stadium, the police are arresting Critical Mass cyclists. Inside, winged cyclists ride to the Beatles’ ‘you have to be free’. The irony is not lost on us. We tweet appreciation for the ceremony, alongside reports of police brutality. Politics stalking the Olympics yet again.

Then suddenly, it’s all about the sport. And the sport is awesome. Swimming, cycling, rowing, athletics. There are heartbreaking failures and astonishing victories. Spitz’s natural heir, Phelps, finishes his Olympics career with an incredible tally of 22 medals. Athletics is still my favourite and it doesn’t disappoint. Dibaba of Ethiopia retains her 10km crown. Bolt of Jamaica retains three of his. Rudisha of Kenya races through the 800m with a new world record. The achievements of Ennis, Rutherford, Farah et al are the icing on the cake. The worst of the Olympics is corporate sponsorship, draconian legislation, and trampling on local people’s rights. But the best is surely this– people competing in friendly rivalry, cheered on by enthusiastic crowds from every nation; women from Gulf nations, and a disabled athlete competing for the first time. And our country united in celebrating the success of so many women, and the double gold of a former refugee. I’m loving every minute. I want to be there.

London 2012. I am 47. Claire is nearly 12. We are outside Buckingham Palace, having arrived early enough to bag a prime spot for the men’s marathon. Somebody hands us flags. I’ve not waved a Union Jack since childhood, but in this crowd of people waving flags from Taiwan, Canada, Ukraine, East Timor, Ethiopia, USA, Portugal, it feels right. We roar with excitement as every athlete passes ­— the losers getting as big a cheer as the winners. In the last lap, the almost-unknown Kiprotich of Uganda storms past Kipsang of Kenya. His arrival is heralded by cheers on Birdcage Walk, helicopters buzzing overhead. He passes us at a pace of less-than-five-minutes-a-mile looking cool and relaxed, on his way to Uganda’s first gold medal in 30 years. Kirui of Kenya follows half a minute later, with Kipsang making an honourable third. It is nearly an hour before the race finishes, the roars increasing for each weary runner who makes it to the end. Soares from East Timor, in penultimate position, wraps himself in a national flag to shouts of ‘Timor, Timor’. The representative of a country so many of us campaigned for finishing the gruelling course with a huge smile on his face. The Olympics and politics, hand in hand. Claire and I cheer with the rest. These Games are ours. Tomorrow I will join the fight for better Olympics in the future. But today, it is just good to be here.

Topics: Culture, Olympics