Re-Imagining the Olympics

Image of Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic Cauldron ©James Richmond

The 2012 Olympics are over. If you weren’t in the UK you might not have been aware of just how transformative these two weeks were. That I’m even talking about it is evidence enough. Like many of my geek and writer friends I’ve often found myself in the position of fighting against the popular attention to the millionaire sports industry.

But this was different. It took me back to something I lost long ago: a love of sport. I grew up with four baseball diamonds and a football field behind my house and a huge field beside it where we practiced driving golf balls. We had an archery target in our back yard. And every Saturday my family plonked ourselves down in front of the television to watch Wide World of Sports, where I first learned about things like hurling.

I played sports: it may surprise some of you to know that I have a letter in softball. We played baseball non-stop, mostly with abandoned equipment from the teams who played behind our house: lost baseballs, cracked bats, discarded bases. We all had our own mitts and I was always pleased when my older brother would choose me ahead of some boys, because I knew he was ruthless when it came to teams and chose the best player.

Where did it change? High school, where the social divisions were sharply drawn. I dropped off the tennis team to devote more time to studies. Then there’s the whole thyroid thing which eventually led to trading mine for a five inch scar on my neck. And sealing the deal was working the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Eleven hour shifts in the gift shop, non-stop work and no fun. I never wanted to hear the word again.

I did get to hold a gold medal. The woman who won the sharp shooting gold, a Canadian on her own in Los Angeles, wore it into the shop so we all gathered around her to ooh and ahh. It was heavy and beautifully designed. But I pretty much ignored sports after that. Easy to do with all the bloated hype around professional sports in the US; worse, the scandalous proto-professional world of college sports. Nothing makes grad students more bitter than a library falling apart and wrapped in plastic while a new bronze Husky dog statue gets installed in front of the sports arena.

I’ve slowly gotten sucked into real football over the years (Go Gunners!). Unlike American football, there’s usually plenty of action and it’s not all about the money (Man United cough). But what got me into the 2012 Olympics initially wasn’t the sports per se; it was Danny Boyle’s orchestration of the opening ceremonies. An intense demonstration of the power of narrative, it offered Britons a new vision. Unlike the canned catch phrases of politicians, this reimagining acknowledged the past and honoured the present. Watching it with the live commentary on Twitter I saw its effects take place as the cynicism surrendered to the magic. Boyle’s theatrical ritual used humour but also touched people through powerful images from childhood and ancient representations of the past (the tor, the maypole). And Evelyn Glennie!

At the centre was the cauldron — I was amused to find it had been codenamed “Betty” and just love it.

“We’re normally designing buildings,” Heatherwick said. “It is like the biggest gadget that anyone can make in a shed but this shed is the most sophisticated shed in Harrogate. It was like the Bond gadget workshop.

“When we were thinking about the cauldron, we were aware they had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics had happened. We felt we shouldn’t try to be bigger.

“The idea is that, at the end of the Games, this cauldron will dismantle itself and come back to the ground. Each of those elements will be taken back by each of the nations and put in their national Olympics cabinets. Everyone has got a piece.”

The power of that image — and its lighting by the torch literally passed from the old generation to the new — lighted a new vision that so many people embraced and lifted the games from mere sporting event to a truly international celebration. The joy and the tears over the next two weeks resonated and not just with Britons. The radiant face of  Jess Ennis, the tearful one of Hoy, the embrace of Heather and Helen, the American women exploding as they won the 4×100 relay (not literally). All eyes were on Bolt as he raced to his expected victories, but how much more people loved him when he did the Mobot.

Go Mo!

Many writers have been inspired by sport; they released a newly discovered Nabokov piece on boxingJoyce Carol Oates has written on the sport as well. I’m not going to suddenly become all Sporty Spice on you. But I have enjoyed the spirit that suffused Britain the last couple weeks. As a few people said on Twitter, the crass closing ceremonies — full of glitz, supermodels, joyless musical reunions (when Freddie Mercury on video proves the most spirited performer, you know you’re in trouble) and the extinguishing of that remarkable cauldron — may have been the polite way to get house guests to leave, but I hope the joyful moments continue to echo in the subconscious for some time to come.

Read poet laureate Carol Duffy’s encomium for the games.


  1. I can see you as a ball player somehow, though I never thought of it until now. I join you in the disdain club of American sports–though I had a brief stint in middle school in hurdles and broad jump–and was lured into this Olympiad through that grand opening ceremony. And the women–the nation of women in golds–that was inspiring as well as vindication of Title IX.

  2. katelaity says:

    Yeah, the payoff of Title IX is obvious. Pity the fascists are doing their best to destroy it.

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