Eric Watson: Life in London during the Games


The London Olympics has been a resounding success although in the build up one could be forgiven for expecting the worst. New Zealand born and UK based Eric Watson tells how another great British tradition had everyone expecting a Five Ringed circus of mayhem.

The sun sets behind the Olympic stadium before the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Photo / AP
The sun sets behind the Olympic stadium before the Closing Ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Photo / AP

If complaining were an Olympic sport, the British would be hands down world champions and winners of gold, silver and bronze every time. This innate talent for nay saying and doom prediction reached a crescendo in the build up to what was supposed to be a celebration of the best in sport and competition; namely the Olympics.

Something the City of London won through amazing leadership, planning, coordination, cajoling, lobbying and in the process even managed to beat out a bid led by IOC chairman Juan Samaranch for Madrid to gain the prize. In a meeting between Samaranch and the face of the London Games Lord Sebastian Coe, the elder statesman was full of praise for the British bid but added at the end: "But of course you won't win."

Anywhere else merriment would have been unrestrained yet the British will happily complain about anything. Plus with their three favourite subjects-traffic, sport and weather rolled into one courtesy of the Olympics-the hand wringers, nay sayers and doom merchants had a field day that had nothing to do with any stadium.

Anyone reading the newspaper headlines would have been forgiven for thinking that the most disastrous Games of the modern era were about to hit London.

Predictions of six weeks of grid lock and storms of Biblical proportions lashing London for the entirety of the Olympiad turned to nought. Instead as Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking said from London: "the place is on steroids- driven happiness and celebration."

Had I not lived in the country for more than a decade I'd have worried about the hand wringing and woe. Yet remember that the Aussies and Kiwis don't call the British Whinging Poms without reason.

They have a complicated relationship with sport. On the one hand they love playing sports, and field competitive teams in a great variety of them. Just look at the medal tally Team GB has accrued-including gold medallist Andy Murray finally beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon-to see how good they can be. Don't forget also that many of the major sports of the world were invented or codified by the British in the nineteenth century, including many of the Olympic disciplines.

Forget Kipling's point about the 'twain' between East and West never meeting. London Mayor Boris Johnson made himself an unlikely celebrity in China claiming that Table Tennis was invented at Westminster School in London, though at the time they called it 'Wiff Waff" Johnson's own sporting pedigree has links with Eton College where he more likely than not played their ancient 'The Wall Game' in which a goal is scored once every 10 years. We should be thankful that not every British sport was exported.

Invention is one thing but ownership is another. So it was with some consternation that England's traditional (and sometimes hated) rivals the Europeans came along and took on a role at which they excel-administration and regulation. The French with FIFA, the Swiss with the IOC...and the list just grew.

Partly because of this, the British have a mistrust of world sporting bodies and competitions. They consider them as 'foreign' (think Alf Garnett refusing to eat any of 'that foreign muck') and the British press is constantly digging for sporting dirt. A recent pre-Olympic example being around FIFA's granting of two football World Cups to Russia and Qatar with Britain the perennial 'also rans'.

This British indignation is in one sense just more British complaining, but it is also very consistent with the British love of sport. At the heart of life in Britain is the principle of something that the sport-loving Victorians understood very well: it's what French call 'Le Fair Play.'

During the recent Tour de France, 30 riders were the victims of a saboteur's sharp tacks strewn on the road creating mayhem and punctures. Eventual winner, Englishman Bradley Wiggins deliberately slowed all the other riders down until the punctures had been fixed. "Vive Le Fair Play" was the reaction. The fact Wiggins also excelled at the Olympics only made this story, and his reputation, better.

As far as stories go a great many countries have stepped up-no more so than New Zealand. At the time of writing this we top the population-based Olympic medal ranking. The fact that we seem to excel at sports that require the competitor to be seated-as in rowing, equestrian and yachting-is fine by me. Yet in other disciplines a great many Kiwis have achieved excellence in their own field of dreams-some with medals some without.

So thank you London for being at your best and for showing how much people cherish celebrating with others the very best the British could have hoped for in staging such a grand global event.

*Eric Watson is a UK-based entrepreneur and part-owner of the Warriors NRL league team

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