August 12, 2012 7:21 pm
The Olympic marathon-runners passed St Paul’s Cathedral three times on Sunday and each time, ringing in their ears along with the cheers of the crowd, were the cathedral bells.
This was a full four-hour peal, performed without a pause, which makes the marathon look like a sprint. (Memo to the International Olympic Committee: out with beach volleyball, in with campanology!) A full peal happens at St Paul’s on average less than once a year, and is usually reserved for great state occasions. This was the third time in the Olympic fortnight, with a fourth scheduled for the Paralympics next month. There never were such times.
Until a few months ago, this spot was occupied by a peace camp of anti-capitalist protesters. Now thousands of people thronged the pavements to catch one last glimpse of an event that managed to marry sport with both capitalism and nationalism.
The most extraordinary manifestation of these Olympics has been the way people just wanted to glimpse it for themselves. The men’s marathon was the final chance for the ticketless and again every available inch was packed.
Marathon-watching is hardly the most exciting form of spectating, especially when, unlike the London Marathon, it is not enlivened by runners dressed as pantomime cows or pineapples. There was not much drama or patriotic interest either: Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda comfortably saw off the Kenyan favourites and the leading British challenger was a distant 30th.
No matter: the crowd was enraptured. All kinds of absurd theories are being offered for this. I believe it is not the occasion that matters as much as the opportunity. In an increasingly passive world, where most of waking life comprises staring at a screen, the urge to be part of something real becomes overwhelming. The Olympics, in a sense, has been the flip side of last summer’s British riots.
But what a flip side! The sceptical, self-deprecating country that Danny Boyle celebrated in the opening ceremony has seemingly ceased to exist. For the past two weeks we have seen a kinder, gentler, even sunnier London. Those who left the city fearing chaos now think themselves accursed for not being there.
They are right to kick themselves because the mood of the past fortnight is unlikely to be seen again. In the wake of Britain’s gold medal success (boxer Anthony Joshua won gold number 29 on Sunday) no national priority has seemed more urgent than hurling enough money at elite athletes to ensure they do it again in Rio de Janeiro come 2016 – David Cameron has just pledged another £500m.
An even more urgent priority over the months ahead will be ensuring that no one gets close to discovering the true cost of these Olympics. Such a figure, if it is ever accurately computed, will remain hidden deep in the Treasury vaults. All three major political parties have been in power since Britain was awarded the games seven years ago and none of them have an interest in asking awkward questions, however many hospital wards, libraries, regiments and police jobs have to go. After all, amid the fervour, it seems possible that Olymposceptics are being drowned as witches in remote parts of the kingdom.
But maybe not. Among the crowd outside St Paul’s on Sunday was Zoe Page, a teacher from County Durham. She had travelled 260 miles to see this race. “I love the Olympics,” she said. Does everyone in Durham? “Not everyone. A lot don’t think this has much to do with them.”
Better keep ringing those bells! I expect grumpy old Britain will be wringing its hands again soon enough.
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