A strange thing happened yesterday. As I walked through the labyrinth of tunnels at Kings Cross tube station, my brisk ‘do you have any idea how busy I am?’ Londoner walk was brought to an abrupt halt, as an extended Chinese family stopped in unison to browse the electronic display. Rather than my usual instantaneous build up of fury resulting in a sharp huff before recalculating and manoeuvring away, I instead felt a serene sense of empathy for being dis-oriented (that’s not a pun… ok, it is really) in a vast foreign city. As I merrily strolled away I gave them a little smile – and I didn’t even feel like ‘that guy’ people avoid on the tube who grins at strangers.
Perhaps it was the sun’s welcome interruption of the British summer that put me in a stubbornly cheerful mood, but I can’t help feeling my actions were directly related to the Olympics. True, I had no way of knowing whether the family in question were here for the Games, but the very thought gave me a far greater sense of shared experience and togetherness than the idea that the purpose of their visit involved a series of soulless, extortionate tourist traps. I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing this shift, as a palpable wave of excitement floods across the UK. After nervously shifting around in fear of G4S-induced security holes and intolerable commutes, as a nation we are now crouched down in the ‘set’ position before the starting gun of the Games fires the whole thing into action. (In this analogy it’s perhaps a little unfair, but possibly apt, to describe Wednesday’s women’s football as a false start).
The athlete’s village has transformed from a deserted pre-fabricated tower block maze to a bustling hive of multinational activity. Indeed, the predicted upcoming activity has caused organisers to hand out 150,000 free condoms to athletes; that’s around 15 each, which is actually 30 each if you really do the maths… (or maybe even 45 for some lucky male Olympians). USA’s female soccer goalkeeper ‘Hope Solo’- daughter of Han Solo- said to EPSN: “I’ve seen people having sex out in the open, getting down and dirty on grass between buildings”, adding: “I may have snuck a celebrity into my Beijing room without anybody knowing and snuck him back out. But that’s my Olympic secret.” No wonder Usain Bolt looked so happy even before his world record beating race had started.
Following in the spirit of Sydney in 2000, and unlike Beijing four years ago by all reports, the organisers have created a festive, carnival-like atmosphere around the village which has helped the athletes to feel relaxed and welcomed. From what I have seen and heard so far the same can also be said of the experience across London for all incoming fans, media and other officials. In fact, with many teams of athletes training in other cities across the UK this week the festive Olympic experience is being shared beyond the capital. The Jamaican athletics team, for example, have based themselves in Birmingham, where hundreds of school children have excitedly embraced the opportunity to watch a public training session. Maybe one or two among those children, inspired by this day, will go on to become world class athletes… while the rest live out their perpetually sedentary days trapped in a world of iPads, iPhones, iJobs and iGiveups.
As enthusiasm and excitement build, so the spotlight intensifies on the British athletes, bringing with it the inevitably high level of expectation and pressure placed on their well-toned shoulders. The fitness of the triple jump medal hope Phillips Odowu, for example, is being monitored by the press with unrelenting scrutiny as he struggles to overcome a hip injury that has only allowed him to compete three times in 2012. The 2009 world champion came agonisingly close to winning gold in Beijing, and for years followers of the event have recognised both his ability and commitment as deserving of a gold medal. Added to this already sizeable pressure, Odowu is as local as they come to the Olympic site, emanating from Hackney in East London.
We’ve been allowed a rare, illuminating insight into the battles faced by athletes preparing for the Games, with the BBC capturing the real story behind a number of aspiring Olympians in a series of documentaries. One heart-warming story followed a year in the life of Ashley McKenzie, a 23-year-old competing in the Judo under-60kg category. McKenzie suffers from ADHD and spent much of his troubled teenage life causing trouble for himself and his family after being expelled from school. When he was 14 his exasperated mother felt she had no choice but to send him to an adolescent mental health unit, where as so often is the case he was brandished with a wide range of conduct disorders and overzealously medicated. Amidst these sizeable difficulties though, Judo had emerged as a conduit helping him to constructively channel his energy away from his usual outbursts. McKenzie described the sport as providing him with “yellow pages to kiss the girl- a lift to get what I wanted out of life”, a disarmingly poetic reference to the nineties commercials. With committed guidance and support, he has since become British Judo’s number one and a medal hopeful, brimming with healthy confidence and optimism about his future.
Similarly revealing was the behind-the-scenes story of Victoria Pendleton, who most of us know simply as a hugely successful and attractive cyclist. What an enviable life she leads, we may think. The reality is that she has gone the majority of her life stuck in an internal battle, lacking self-esteem and so unremittingly self-critical that she has consistently interpreted any non-winning performance and by extension herself as an abject failure. Pendleton’s father is a fierce competitor, cutting a frustrated figure at his own lack of professional success as a cyclist. She described how as a youngster she would follow him as he disappeared over a hill in front of her, not even looking back to check she was still there. And herein lies the trade-off in the blinkered pursuit of success for Pendleton: with winning the only way she knew to gain affection from her father, anything else felt entirely empty. Hence why she is such a fierce competitor feared by all her rivals when her mind-set is set to ‘win at all costs’. She spoke candidly about her tremendous fear of failure at London 2012, feeling further pressure having caused disruption within the GB cycling team after revealing she had been dating Scott Gardner, the team sport scientist, contravening team rules.
As we reach the crescendo culminating in the Opening Ceremony on Friday night, it’s these human stories that make me feel truly invested in the Games beyond my already massive level of excitement. It’s going to be an amazing fortnight, regardless of whether Hope Solo responds to my emails offering her another Olympic secret.