Newspapers are often wonderful things. But, in this age of the “conversational Olympics” (honestly), when spectator, coach, athlete and sports commentator can all engage in one big conversation in all kinds of digital formats, newspapers might seem a little old-fashioned, even quaint – particularly when TV networks broadcast from multiple venues across multiple channels and journalists churn out “live” online coverage of play-by-play action on their notebook computers.
As hundreds of cameras whirled around London’s Olympic Stadium and mini-studios lit up for the countdown to the start of the opening ceremony, I felt as though I wasn’t doing my duty as a columnist.
In a perfect world, I should have been poised with notebook, pen and BlackBerry ready to file this column for the weekend edition, but the trouble with international newspapers and time-zones meant that this section of the paper had already been printed – long before the heads of state, celebrities and oligarchs in their dreadful Bosco tracksuits took their seats in the stadium. Should I scribble down a few notes and cover the opening of the games a week later? Or should I just sit back, take the evening off and let the spectacle unfold? I decided to go one better: joining the scores of other broadcasters reporting “live”, I kicked off the evening by doing occasional reports for our radio station from my seat as the performers limbered up.
For the past week it’s been nigh-impossible to have a conversation with anyone, in any corner of the world, without someone asking, “What did you think of the opening ceremony? Did you like it?”
I did like it – very much. It got off to an awkward start but later, when it kicked into high gear, I enjoyed the pace, the choreographed masses, the humour and the line-up of collaborators. From the replica rolling countryside to the dancers in fluorescent get-ups to JK Rowling doing a reading, it was transmitting one of Britain’s last remaining assets to the world: creativity.
Of course it was a little baggy in parts, a wee bit scary at times and occasionally shrill. And who was responsible for casting the painful female voice, better suited for doing cheap car insurance ads that announced performances and participating nations? But, overall, it did a fine job of capturing the mood of a nation that’s trying to figure out where it sits in the world (walk-on player in global affairs; savvy survivor despite an ailing economy and society; court jester to a new set of masters).
The evening reminded the rest of the planet that it’s still home to the world’s most recognisable monarchy, a clutch of respected personalities and brands, and is also the supreme leader in popular music.
By the time Paul McCartney left the stage and I wandered out of the stadium, I was also reminded that the UK is struggling to do its best with limited resources. The shopping mall as gateway and last port of call to the Olympic park is perhaps the most representative symbol of contemporary GB Inc; a foreign-owned and -managed public-private partnership supposed to be a cornerstone of the Olympic legacy that somehow doesn’t quite deliver.
As I walked along the main shopping boulevard with my hosts, I tried to imagine how the Olympic park and the new heart of Stratford would look and feel on a wet and windswept day in November or a hot August weekend in 2014. For starters, this canyon of retail was devoid of greenery, shade or places to sit. Such features might be put in place after the games but I’m not convinced that they will be. From an architectural perspective, the mix of hospitality, retail and gambling is unremarkable. After three months of rain, why anyone would build a shopping area without awnings or shelter is mind-boggling. And at a time when the talk is all about the need for greener cities, it seemed bewildering that there wasn’t a tree, flowerbed or patch of shrubbery in sight.
As I’ve toured London over the past week, I’ve been impressed by how well the infrastructure’s been holding up but frightened by the lack of people in the West End and other pockets where there might usually be signs of life. And while I’m all for uniformity and tight branding, it’s slightly depressing how temporary everything feels, with a plague of white vinyl tents across the city the best representation of temporary architecture.
The games got off to a terrific start and it’s good news for London’s east that there’s been so much urban rehabilitation. But the city could have done with more simple improvements. With so much architectural and design talent, it would have been more sensible to create a legacy of pocket parks and semi-permanent pavilions that could have become well-used fixtures for small businesses, urban farmers, families and weekend athletes. Instead, we’re going to be left, I fear, with patches of brown grass and a predictable mall as one of the most visible examples of Olympic legacy.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule