I was wrong. I strode forth, confident and cock-sure in my opinion that the utterly shambolic and punitive Olympic advertising restrictions had set the tone for a Games overcast with disinterest and resentment. But even as LOCOG’s wheels were falling off, our athletes rolled up their sleeves, took their Union Jacks in hand, and cranked it up a notch to get team GB back on the road.
And in general the public have whole-heartedly engaged with the Games, contrary to my morose predictions, and have been richly rewarded with an inimitably spectacular show. This shouldn’t really be that surprising, given our rocketing ascension to the dizzy heights of the medals table in a matter of days. I was a fool to think we would not be dazzled by Ennis’ winning smile, tickled by Wiggins’ dry wit, or moved by Murray’s raw emotion.
But wait, I hear you cry, why am I trying to spoonfeed you this nutritious doctrine of Olympic positivity, when you have already had your portion, and seconds you greedy things, and it was I who threw it out the high chair in a tantrum.
It is because I am so deeply impressed with the change in the atmosphere of London over the Games – in the basic norms of people’s interactions. Usually the use of public transport is a curiously inhuman affair, with each individual desperately trying to avoid eye contact with anyone else, clutching the vital iPod to which they are intravenously wired, or conducting hushed, furtive conversation in sporadic bursts. Some crack under the pressure – often an audible squeak, followed by a crimson blush. I’ve seen a man, faced with traversing the length of the lethargic Northern line without so much as yesterday’s Metro, gnaw his own finger off just so he could preoccupy himself with the bloody stump. Amidst the network of underground linking lines, there are no personal connections.
But over this short Olympic season, it all changed. Hyperbole aside, I was party to a carriage of people gather round one man whose phone was streaming the athletics, and as he held it up like the Torch itself to broadcast to us team GB’s triumphs, the excitement was palpable. Not just the excitement of witnessing such human prowess either, but the excitement of sharing the experience with complete strangers.
There are so many Olympic travel guides and helpers around London, it seems many tourists assume that everyone else not wearing the 2012 purple livery are probably just volunteers on their lunch breaks and ask for directions and advice anyway. This has sparked countless conversations breaking down any stiff-lipped silence on the tube. An American couple on their way to the dressage briefly interviewed everyone around them with boundless enthusiasm that proved infectious, snowballing off into four or five separate conversations, once again between complete strangers.
The lacklustre Big Society idea quietly binned by Cameron’s strategists was a flop at best, and a veil for dismantling public services at worst, but it stems from an important idea. A good society, a society in which people are happiest and in which culture thrives, is one that shares. The concept of a nation and a society are built from a shared set of values, norms, and circumstances, and the less we share, the less that society coheres. Many of our most chronic problems are caused by a breakdown in personal connections that leave vulnerable people isolated.
The most important triumph of the Olympics is not our number of medals, the fact that our cyclists alone can compete against whole countries, or even that we’ve managed to avoid the implosion of all the capital’s infrastructure in the process. It is the triumph of relationships over individual anonymity, of sharing a common passion with your neighbour that trumps the fear of the unknown other.
Across London the atmosphere has changed. I’m sure it will slip back into its usual starched and closeted ways after the Olympics are over and the cheery purple entourage have hung up their uniforms, but for one glorious fortnight we saw a glimpse of the society and the nation we thought had been consigned to the nostalgic annals of history.