Category Archives: Travel

XXXth Olympiads of the Modern Era, 9th Olympiads of the Big Business Era?

Olympics Musings 3
 In 1948, Britain functioned with post WWII rationing, so the fact that the medals were made mostly out of cardboard was par for the course. In 2012, Britain, along with a large chunk of the planet, finds itself in its worst economic situation since 1929, or so the pundits say, and the current estimate is that achieving each of its to date 57 medals cost the country close to five million pounds (and yes, the maths is more than likely to have changed before the end of tomorrow.)

The cost-per-medal discussion is one I remember after Sydney’s terrific 20 golds in 2000, with our wonderful hosts (second nature for Aussies, but still, the Huxleys opened their house for two weeks to an invasion, which included this Pom-French couple they’d met at a wedding five years previously…) pondering the cost of school and community sport in comparison. I’m going to move swiftly on from that precise value-for-money analysis and just pause to note what a fantastic sporting result Great Britain and Northern Ireland (still no further forward on this…) has achieved, even before the end of the games, heavy-duy lottery funding and home advantage notwithstanding.

What I want to focus on more here is what Games we want to be paying for, and how much. Given that we are clearly incapable of thinking sensibly about what we can afford (football finances, anyone?), let’s think of what we truly want to spend. It has already been pointed out to me that comparing London 1948 with London 2012 is pretty meaningless, as the former were just before television installed itself firmly in our living rooms. Fair point, but, one billion dollars shelled out by NBC for Olympics coverage rights? And incidentally, a 6 000 strong media team mobilised, yes, six thou-sand! they could have invaded the Channel Islands, if they’d had a mind to. Anyway, the big-money low for me at London 2012 was the price tag of £15, £30 or £50, for what was branded as a bronze, silver or gold photo you could have of yourself, carrying the torch, posing next to I don’t know whom. I think anything relating to “the Olympics enthuse the local community” or “share in the spirit of sport” kind of got lost there. Happily, I can report there was NO queue there.

I think that the worst of the current economic mess is that we are totally inured to crazy numbers, like the ones just above. Whenever I timidly try to point that the financial figures attached to something seem bewilderingly huge, I am usually either treated to a discourse on the (arguable but, to my mind, usually highly illogical) mechanics of the industry in question, or given a rueful and increasingly frequent “I know, it’s crazy!” answer.

Let me link that up to the wider sustainability question of the Games. I think that the wind turbines in the Olympic Park and the recycling bins at all venues are a very neat reflection of how far most of us (I include myself) are prepared to act sustainably: agonising over buying a (second) car, justifying the purchase of a new fridge before the old one falls apart, because it’s got an A+ environment friendly tag. And that’s it.

Yes, we’re a long way from the sort of Games brave/nutty (depending where you stand) Indignados or people in transition communities would approve. Unfortunately, this is a much tougher and more complex question than I can address here. (This last sentence is a pure writing ploy: I haven’t the beginning of a clue of how to address the economic, environmental and social mess we’re in. Perhaps we could commission flavour-of-the-month Martians to help us out. Little green men, take note, we never really took to communism, unbridled liberalism’s no good either, and we don’t want anything to do with slavery, so you’re not using those charming camp-operating people in Leighton Buzzard as a model, OK?)

That whole rights issue nonsense

This is getting ridiculous. It started with a problem that never was, ie the reports pre-Games that spectators wearing or otherwise ostentatiously consuming Nike or Pepsi stuff would be refused entry, on the grounds that Adidas and Coca-Cola would feel the terms of their megabucks deals had been infringed. Well, either people took note and revised their gear or it was a silly season story. BUT the reality is every bit as bad as that story, which I can illustrate with two annoyances, which are symptomatic of the whole rights management thing, again, as above, one of those Big Difficult Things.

One, the magazine with lots of glittery stickers and fuzzy felt and bits of coloured cardboard that drives Richard mad on environmental grounds, but which I love on it-keeps-Emma-constructively-occupied-for-at-least-an-hour-at-a-time grounds, had a July issue, which was sports-themed. Sports, not Olympics. Because if the five rings design, the word London, next to 2012, or the word Olympics had appeared in it, the publisher would have had to pay what it obviously considered was too high a fee. So, educate the kids about the benefits of sport, by using the fantastic opportunity of arguably THE leading sporting event in the world being on your doorstep, yes, please do, but you gotta pay. Lots.

Two, I thought ahead of what I would like as an Olympic souvenir, to try and stop myself wanting everything when I got there, and I settled on a London 2012 themed iPhone cover. And before you say, what a trivial thing, I leave you with this thought: what are you going to do with your Wenlock mascot after the Games? Richard shook his head over my clearly brilliant idea, saying “Samsung is a partner.” “Yeah, and?” sez I. “They don’t make iPhones”. Obvious. So far, I’ve found an obscure website in goodness knows where that’ll sell me 20 iPhone covers with THAT London 2012 logo for one dollar something apiece. Certainly, no such covers were available at the Megastore in the Olympics Park, at the Olympics Store in St Pancras, at John Lewis in Milton Keynes (but l fell for the tea towel and the Team GB biscuit tin, with Union flag stamped butter biscuits inside, which went down very well at my office – they’re certainly not too chauvinistic to sample food).

The little things – London welcomes the world, avec un français excellent

Wearing a tricolore flag meant I got quite a few of “Allez les bleus” and “Bonjour la France”, which was lovely, and I thanked each of my greeters, en français, bien sûr. Welcoming words were delivered in, I have to say, often perfect French. Actually, this was rather symptomatic of what we suspected was a large proportion of home counties people among the volunteers and spectators (judging for instance by the kids’ names in the families sitting next to us. I know, I know, I’m an inverted snob.) People’s games? Well, let’s say we heard more “you know?” in interviews with “deserving young people from disadvantaged local communities” than in the venues.

Anyway, the French in the signs, during bilingual announcements etc., was impeccable. I know it’s an IOC rule, but still, London definitely beat Sydney there: I remember someone said then that she was damned if she was going to say anything in French during the opening ceremony. Also, “Snacks and Drinks” was translated  into “Snacks et Poissons” on a sign. LOL. True, nuclear explosions somewhere a lot closer to Oz than France a few years previously meant that diplomatic relations between the two countries were possibly still not optimal…

Photos: two volleyball ones at the top and handball at the bottom: Richard Wilkinson. Two middle beach volleyball ones: Hélène Wilkinson, given that our younger daughter had finally managed to fall asleep on her father…

Sport, yer what?

Olympics Musings 2

I’m not a sporty person. I don’t come from a sporty family and did not shine at sport at school in anyway. I was pretty good at swimming, and just about average at everything else. I actively hated running and still do. Nowadays, I courageously (well, that’s what my colleagues say, and I agree…) go swimming every Friday lunchtime, doing 2 000 metres of breast stroke in just under an hour (so far, my best time is stubbornly staying at the 58 minute mark).

Richard comes from a much sportier family. In fact, his grandfather was a swimming coach, he got chucked in a pool as a toddler and trained hard and swam in competitions as a child/teen. So he’s known the joys of getting up at 5am twice a week to go and spend a couple of hours in the pool. ME, I guess a form of burnout, put paid to that when he was about 14. An ardent Liverpool fan, he then switched to football, which he played on and off until his thirties, when it was suggested that two misbehaving hips after consecutive falls was a cue to stop that. Biking was a mode of transport in Paris for a goodish while. Nowadays, he courageously goes running at least twice a week.

Our girls do next to no sport outside school. They’re nice and active but have shown no great leaning towards any sport so far. They know all about the Man U/Liverpool feud (which I keep up on the Man U side purely for parity purposes, oh, and husband baiting purposes) and Sophie the diplomat has decided to support her native Paris Saint Germain, but she’s in no way assiduous in that!

So we’re not great candidates for getting involved in the Olympic games, right? Wrong! We’re the perfect candidates: I get to brush up on the rules of loads of disciplines I know next to nothing about, the girls get exposure to very high level sport and the accompanying notions of long, tough preparation and competition, Richard gets to enjoy sport with rather more inside knowledge than the rest of us. (Granted, not hard. Anyway, my previous post was a big clue on my lack of sporting culture and knowledge. I didn’t even list all the countries we saw in the many team events we saw, and mentioned few results. Admittedly, this was mostly due to my getting them muddled up – I’ve since got them all written down on a note after sifting through the photos – but a true sporting fan would have gone to the trouble of boring you further with full team and score details.)

And surely the point is that as well as generally having sport right in the middle of our radar screens for two weeks every four years, (actually twice in twelve years, the Olympics obviously having been much less of an experience when we weren’t actually there), we also all lapped up the great venues, the fantastic photo opportunities and the chance to participate with raucous supporting techniques, mostly just involving waving flags and yelling.

A quick word on the vexed question of the range of sports on offer at the Olympiads of the modern era. Here’s my two penny’orth, without going into the detail of the sporting merits of beach volleyball, synchronised swimming or table tennis.

Athletics en bloc are obviously quintessential Olympics events, as are also, in my view, swimming, fencing, shooting, equestrian and water based events such as rowing. I’m also fine with events, which require judging, however imperfect the various systems may be. I am more troubled, however, by events involving tournaments (incidentally, those are what I saw most and thoroughly enjoyed); at the end of the day, two out of the three medals are awarded to a losing side. Having said that, I completely agree that the very different format of the Olympics competition in football gives a welcome complement to the World Cup, for instance. Mmmm, not a very conclusive analysis. No, well, that’s why the IOC was invented,  so that its members can ponder on these matters when they are not busy being horrible corrupt people, which is clearly their main calling in life, according to popular perception. I haven’t the energy right now to do the required research to refute or confirm…

The little things – Wot about Northern Ireland?

So, from day one, I kept boring everyone with the question, WHY is it GB and not the UK? Northern Ireland seemed to be involved, as confirmed by Danny Boy and other allusions in the opening ceremony. It must be my French cartesian mind, which likes neatness and structure but I always take the time to explain to non-British friends what makes up Great Britain and the United Kingdom respectively, not getting into the Isle of Man thing, because then it gets silly. So why GB?

I was delighted that a PM listener on Radio 4 had that precise question, together with the  presenter, who chimed in with “I’ve wondered that myself”. Of course, it provided further and unnecessary proof that I am an archetypal BBC Radio 4 listener, but the point was, I was going to get my answer. Well I didn’t! The official IOC approved name of the team is Great Britain and Northern Ireland, abbreviated GBR (and popularly known as “Team GB”), but why? Why on earth isn’t it United Kingdom?? Please put me out of my misery, someone.

All photos: Richard Wilkinson

Introducing "Olympics Musings"

I’m freshly back from attending eight separate events at London 2012 in the Olympic park and in four venues outside it. Now, exhausted but very happy, I thought I would set out a few Olympics musings prompted by this terrific experience. I’ll have a go at structuring this, in several installments over a few blog entries, but expect me to drift into stream of consciousness mode at the drop of a hat.

As an intro, here are a few plain facts.

Four of us went: Richard, our seven and eleven year old daughters Emma and Sophie and I (I am a true pedant and see no reason to write “myself” which has crept into common usage in place of “I”).

We applied for tickets via the lottery organised about 18 months ago, obtained 12 sets of tickets, attended 8 (the other 4 went to happy homes, we are NOT responsible for any empty seats, of which we saw very few anyway, OK?)

Richard and I have been to Sydney 2000 and attended a roughly equal number of similar events – an excellent point of comparison (and Aussies don’t despair just yet, two extra gold yesterday, a few days left…)

And now for the important stuff, please countdown with the compere, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, ARE YOU REA-DY, THEEEESE ARE THE EVENTS WE SAW, cue music “We will rock you”.

Day Six 

Four quarter finals men’s badminton doubles at Wembley, including China v China, which turned out to be a master class demonstration match. Denmark, the only non-Asian side in the quarter finals won over Taipei. There were two courts, so two matches going on at once, I enjoyed that!

Two men’s volleyball preliminary matches at Earl’s Court, with Poland v Argentina by far the most partisan we witnessed, I’d say, even including one of the three things we saw involving team GB (basketball).

Day Seven

This was a no live games action day for us and the day France and GB exchanged places in the medals table in the morning a couple of times, before France settled at 5 for a few days (no longer there, sniff) and GB overtook France.

Day Eight

Equestrian jumping preliminaries at Greenwich. 75 toffs on horses, as Richard put it (but the only Royal competing was a Saudi prince, not a HRH Z – this time round – or A – years ago) jumping a dozen wonderfully kitsch fences, designed by someone whose name was repeated loads of times, but that I still have managed to forget.

It was also, of course, the gold rush of Super Saturday, with GB rocketing up to third place in the medals table after a fabulous evening of athletics.

Day Nine 

Two qualifier matches for women’s handball in the Copper Box at the Olympic Park. We missed the first half of Sweden v Korea, because we were enjoying a tour of the Associated Press media centre thanks to dear Aussie friend Ian Cohen, who happens to be a Channel Ten senior sports journalist, and is covering the Olympics, having had no chance to catch his breath after the Tour de France. Then screamed for then sighed over Angola v Brazil. The girls went down fighting, anyway, and seemed to enjoy the crowd support.

Synchronized swimming preliminary technical routine duets at the Aquatics Centre. Still reeling from the shock of hearing Johnny (Halliday for those non French people I have to explain basics like that to)’s wonderfully cheesy rock ballad tones floating over the Greek girls. And, sorry, French folks, I have no idea which song it was.

Two quarter finals of women’s beach volleyball at horse guards parade that evening, well, at 10pm. Both the teams we supported, Germany and the Czech Republic (a nice Czech deputy Chef de Mission who was a bit hesitant in the Tube gave the girls pin badges – we’re easily bought ), lost and the fact that legs or arms were bared or covered had no incidence on the score. I am pleased to assure you that this is now a scientifically proven, indeed evidence based fact.

Day Ten

Women’s hockey prelims at the Riverbank Arena. An average score of 3.5 goals per game, where the Kiwis achieved a goalless draw against Germany, allowing them to get through to the next stage, and the US getting wiped out by South Africa, who knocked 7 in. Do the maths for USA’s score…

And my own personal highlight: these weren’t the most expensive tickets (beach volleyball quarter finals were) but we got to see our two teams play in men’s basket ball, and they weren’t playing each other, how jammy is that? It was a real bum that we had to leave GB v China at half time to make our Eurostar, but I’m so glad it was that match we had to sacrifice, with GB already well and truly trouncing the Chinese giants (in stature, I mean, even if they’re a pretty good side anyway) on the court already, rather than France who kept a timid lead against an on-form Nigerian team.

Sophie had been an enthusiastic participant throughout the games we saw. This match was the one where Emma came down from her I-don’t-do-flags-and-stuff stance and really got stuck in. Richard, WHY didn’t you tell me France were already through to the next stage, and spared me a couple of grey hairs? Got to tick off a young bloke next to me for booing a French free throw to put the player off, though. Told him he was more than welcome to support Nigeria (I would have, except against France or GB!) but it just wasn’t cricket to boo. He looked a bit terrified, and stopped booing! I keep forgetting I’m middle aged…

OK, well I was hoping to tackle some of the topics I wanted to address, like silly rights issues, money money money, the organisation, oh, and sport, stuff like that, but I’m already feeling winded and I guess you might be too. So here’s just a little bit of miscellany in lieu of cliffhanger.

The little things – Fancy dress

What IS it with the British and dressing up?  Foreigners are both perplexed and amused by this (as with many things British, I have to say) and I for one don’t know why this is a peculiarly British trait. From Morris dancers to French maids outfits (hell, what I am talking about, something as passé as a French maid outfit? Chelsea strips for aging politicians at parties with Berlusconi and Mosley, more like), from runners dressed up as vegetables for charity fundraising to a man in drag jumping out of a plane in the middle of the opening ceremony, from Lords shuffling about in daft Order of the Garter gear to the still omnipresent grey-skirt-or-trousers-with-school-approved-top-and-tie dutifully worn by schoolchildren, the nation has a very rich tradition of dressing up. Faintly disquieting to my mind, but hey, plenty of skeletons in the French closet too. Each to their own and all that.

Anyway, fancy dress has a natural, welcome and very entertaining place during the Olympics. My gold medal goes to the team of Wallys (as in “Where’s Wally?”) at the beach volleyball, the silver to the horseguards (I think that’s what they were, alternative suggestions on a postcard, please) at the equestrian jumping, and bronze to the guy in the Poland match with his home made eagle’s wings. The only reason he gets bronze is my soft heart. As a very probably non-British person, he should be disqualified, but then that’s the problem with these judging based events…

All photos: Richard Wilkinson, except the Wallys (I took that one)