Monday 23rd July 2012- the 66th day of the Olympic flame’s marathon journey across Britain and the second of a frenzied 7 day finishing sprint through the capital, taking the flame to it’s eventual East London dwelling via the London Eye, Royal Navy Commando helicopter and Battersea Dogs Home. Monday also happened to be the day that I, a normal 24 year old bloke from West London, was transported briefly into a world of celebrity and frenzied excitement for the most surreal and inspiring afternoon of my relatively short life. Despite finding out months ago that I was lucky enough to be one of 8000 torchbearers, the reality of the true honour and significance of such a moment did not really begin to set in until Monday evening, when the torchbearer bus began inching it’s way through the thronging mass of people lining the streets of Tooting Bec. As I sit here writing this, my Olympic torch proudly propped up in the centre of the living room, I can’t help but feel a true sense of gratitude and almost embarrassment at having such an honour bestowed upon me. I ran 252 miles in 4 days to raise money for Alzheimers Society, which is undoubtedly a fine physical achievement and also probably a little on the crazy side, but I was truly humbled by the whole experience and the reaction of the crowd, who at times treated me like some kind of hero figure. Tim Lovejoy, someone I spent countless Saturday mornings watching on Soccer AM, and Tim Henman, quite frankly a British sporting legend, both seemed as awestruck by the crowd reaction as the rest of us on the bus. Their celebrity status was, for a few hours, largely irrelevant- the excitement of the crowds was focused on the individual carrying the torch, regardless of who they were, almost as an emblematic figure, a reflection of a nation’s excitement at staging the world’s biggest sporting event. Never before in my life have I been mobbed; however, from the moment I stepped off the bus with torch in hand, I was surrounded by a sea of people, all clamouring for the same thing- a photo with the Olympic torch.
Backtrack nearly twelve months, to the 8th August 2011 and the scenes in nearby Croydon were similar in some ways to Tooting on Monday night- police officers encircled by huge swarms of people joining together in a universal outpouring of emotion. Last year, during the worst riots seen in Britain for decades, the underlying emotion was rage; a venomous anger that Prime Minister David Cameron described as a result of a ‘broken society’ in ‘moral collapse’. The poisonous hatred that led to five deaths and more than £200 million in property damage was aimed almost solely at the police, who bore the brunt of the violence and faced media scrutiny for their subsequent attempts to control the situation. Not even 12 months on and in Tooting on Monday I witnessed the manifestation of a complete emotional reversal. Once again thousands of Londoners stood side-by side with the Met Police, yet this time, anger had been replaced as the prevailing emotion by pure, unadulterated joy. If the actions of the rioters last year were juvenile, the crowds lining the streets on Monday reacted with a similar immaturity- this time, however, borne from almost childish excitement at witnessing such a momentous occasion. The Met Police officers tasked with keeping trouble at bay guarded the flame with a comforting air of authority, but more significantly, smiles on their faces. An outsider watching the police bikes crawling along exchanging high fives with the joyous crowds would not believe that the same men and women, less than a year earlier, were facing petrol bombs and broken bottles in full riot-gear. This, to me, demonstrates the real power of the Olympics and proves that the 70 day torch relay truly has captured the imagination of the nation.
The feel-good factor is one of the intangible benefits that is difficult to quantify when assessing the ‘value’ that the Olympics are delivering to British tax-payers footing the astronomical £9 billion bill. There is no doubt that this is an obscene amount of money, especially given the current economic situation we find ourselves in. Yes, there will be benefits to the transport system, much-needed regeneration of large parts of the capital, not to mention the huge short-term economic benefits of the estimated 11 million visitors during the Games. Personally, I would have to agree with those who argue that these tangible benefits do not represent good value for money. However, looking at it incredibly simplistically, although the funding for the Olympics has ultimately come partly from my own pocket, I have in truth hardly noticed it. I have not been charged with a crippling ‘Olympic tax’. I have not noticed huge amounts of neglect in other publicly-funded areas crippled by government cut-backs; although I will concede that there are undoubtedly people out there who have. I view Olympic funding as almost the mother-of-all finance schemes, where the cost of a new car is spread across a ridiculously long-period of time and taken straight from your pay cheque before you have time to notice it was even there. As much as the staunch economists will (probably rightly) claim that this is not the sensible way to finance either a new car or a worldwide sporting event, it is the way that many of us choose to live our lives in order to get the maximum enjoyment out of them while we still can. Saving for a Ferrari for 60 years and finally buying one when you are eighty may be financially sensible, but it is not how I would choose to live my life.
Yes, the Olympics are expensive, but let’s enjoy them while we can and make the most of a feel-good factor that seemed a lifetime away back in August last year. If I was sceptical of the Olympics before I carried the torch on Monday (which incidentally, I wasn’t) then there is no doubt that in the aftermath I would be completely converted. Similarly, if you had suggested after last year’s riots that every Brit could donate £150, spreading the cost over a number of years, to bring our country back from the brink of collapse to a cluster of proud, joyful communities cheering the Olympic flame through our streets, then I would have snapped your hand off. I am no David Cameron, or Boris Johnson, but those who know me know that I love a good deal and for me, the Olympics might just turn out to be the most unexpected bargain of the lot.