Brian's Blogs

Olympic reflections

So, the Olympic Games are finally over and once more we can all sit quietly back, looking forward to Rio in four years' time, while contemplating the best and worst bits of the past fortnight's shenanigans.

I myself was actually in the UK during the Games, and it was as if the entire world outside Olympicsville simply didn't exist. If it wasn't competing, it just wasn't in the news.

What WAS very noticeable, however, was the good natured "team" of 70,000 volunteers, who were everywhere, it seemed, meeting and greeting at airports and railway stations, and guiding people through the streets of London, even late into the night. Their approach was a joy to behold. They had obviously been well trained. They talked to the crowds with enthusiasm. They made jokes about the weather and the traffic and whatever else they could. They were helpful and polite and it was quite clear that they were enjoying what they were doing. I was walking through Hyde Park one evening at around 11pm and was bid a very good night by no fewer than four total strangers!

But I have to ask myself what the rest of the world made of the unusual opening ceremony that was so British that only the British themselves could possibly have understood half of what was going on. OK, so Mr Bean taking part in an orchestra was universally appreciated (even German TV, not known for its sense of humor, reran this extract over and over in their news bulletins). And the "Queen" jumping out of a helicopter with 007 in tow was pure magic. But I loved reading on one of the American blog sites their total lack of comprehension when they wrote "don't the Brits know that Abe Lincoln had a beard" – not realizing that the actor Kenneth Brannagh was actually impersonating the 19th century engineer Brunel!

Another topic that filled a great many British newspapers was the inclusion of the Beach Volleyball tournaments, situated in Horse Guards Parade, not a stone's throw from the Prime Minister's official residence. The sport fought a rear-guard action throughout the entire proceedings insisting that its athletes were not chosen purely on sex appeal. But surely the skimpy bikinis that were worn are without doubt the main reason why TV ratings were way better for the women's sport than the men's games. And when the Daily Mail newspaper ran a photo spread about the event on its web site, it included 16 pictures: 15 of them were of bikini-clad belles, with one picture of the British men's team, at the very bottom of the page.

Of course, there was also a great deal of coverage of things that didn't go quite as the organizers might have wished for – such as when teams from China, South Korea and Indonesia quickly worked out that winning all of your matches wasn't the easiest path to gold. Instead, the players did their best to lose their matches so they would be paired up with different teams in the following rounds. Fans booed, and there were threats of walk-outs and demands for refunds and the said teams were sent packing.

One of the really nice touches of the Games was the decision by the Royal Mail service to paint a traditional red post box in bright gold paint in the home town of each British gold medal winning athlete. It's the first time the mail service has changed the color of its mailboxes in more than a century (the boxes have been red since 1874). Of course we all laughed when it turned out that postboxes in the wrong places were being painted gold, with at least two athletes having two mail boxes each being painted after them with competition between rival towns breaking out when it was discovered that the athletes might have moved home in the previous few years.

However, as "cock-ups" go, these paled into insignificance compared with some of the truly memorable cock-ups of the Games. And I'm not just talking of such unfortunate events as the heartbreaking performance in the men's 3m individual dive, when Stephan Feck managed to get zero points across the board after he landed on his back during a dive.

The organizers were naturally very keen to ensure that everything would run as smoothly as possible. In a pre-games briefing, the press were told that London 2012's ceremonies would involve as many humans as possible cross-checking everything. National anthems would be selected using a "drag and drop" computer system, used for nothing else. The anthem files showed both the three-letter country code and the national flag, which would be compared with the physical flag being prepared at the same time. These flags also had their country codes and names written on them in small type, as well as an arrow pointing to the top (clearly useful when one could clearly see how very many of the spectators didn't know which way up to hold Britain's Union Jack!).

Several different sets of people were there to check everything was correct before the flag and medal bearers walked out, while the entire process was overseen by producers who had undergone extensive training, including regular flag-naming contests.

So I guess it came as no surprise that the North Korean women's football team didn't laugh off the first flag gaffe of the Games. Just before play began, a photograph of the DPRK's Kim Song Hui was flashed up on the screen - next to the South Korean (ROK) flag. As a result the North Korean team refused to take the field for more than an hour.

On another occasion, an American flag being hoisted to the sound of the Stars & Stripes broke away from its moorings and fluttered to the ground during a winners' ceremony.

But I guess British cock-ups could never match the precedent set some months earlier in Kuwait when officials honoring Kazakhstan's shooting team made an international howler of the first order. Instead of the Kazakhstan anthem, someone had downloaded a version from the internet which turned out not to be the correct one at all, but a spoof from the comedy film Borat.

As shooter Maria Dmitrienko received her gold medal, out from the PA system came a song beginning: "Kazakhstan greatest country in the world … All other countries are run by little girls" and which went on to proclaim that "Kazakhstan's prostitutes are the cleanest in the region … except of course Turkmenistan's."

A video of the ceremony showed Dmitrienko on the podium, her hand on her heart, looking perplexed as the song began to play. Kazakh officials demanded an apology and the Kuwaiti officials had to restage the ceremony with the correct anthem.

How could the British ever hope to compete with that?

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