On the road to London 2012
Paul Ash gets a taste of upbeat British spirit at the Olympics
THE worst ever discus throw at an Olympic Games was by an Oxford classics scholar named GS Robertson, who managed to hurl his disc a rubbish 25.2m. Never mind. His lacklustre performance was a mere sideshow to a savage essay he wrote shortly after the Athens games — the first “modern” Olympics — in 1896.
It feels correct to be reading “An Englishman at the first modern Olympics” as I lounge in my west-facing fifth-floor suite at The Berkeley while dawn steals across the rooftops of Knightsbridge and muttering black cabs wait in front of the hotel.
Today I will join the tourist throng going to the games. Lucky for me, the Olympic spectacle has improved since the Fortnightly Review published Robertson’s essay in June 1896. For one thing, in 2012 the athletes come from everywhere on the planet. In 1896, according to Robertson, it was only the prowess of the Americans and English that kept the games together, all other nations being “in an absolutely prehistoric condition”, athletically speaking.
“The other foreign countries sent few athletes of note,” Robertson writes. “A Swiss, resident in Greece, was victorious on the vaulting horse with pommels, an Austrian won the 500m swimming race, and a Dane the two-handed lifting of weights. The only Italian competitor, who walked from Milan to Athens, in order, as he supposed, to get himself into proper training, was disqualified on his arrival.”
Robertson gores the French (“lamentably unsuccessful”) and savages the Greeks. “Their physical gifts do not favour athletics, their disposition is on the whole opposed to active exercise …”
It is largely Robertson’s fault that I am late for my host, Adam Chaudhri from British Airways, who is waiting for me in the foyer. I have also not yet had breakfast which, in a place such as this, I am reluctant to forego.
Adam will not be distracted. “It’s rush hour and we have a long way to go,” he says, as he steers me firmly out of The Berkeley’s revolving door and down the steps past the bowler-hatted footman.
We head east on a packed Piccadilly Line Tube train. I close my eyes and, for a brief moment, I am still living in London and commuting to the tiny paper where I once worked in the East End. Nothing has changed: the train still rattles and bangs and shakes, wheels squealing on the tight curves between Knightsbridge and Green Park.
At Holborn, where we change for the Central Line to Stratford, the crush intensifies. The whole city, it seems, is moving east. The West End — and Knightsbridge and The Berkeley — may still, in the minds of many, be the centre of the capital, but today the focus has shifted to once-feared parts of the city, places like Hackney, Stratford and Shoreditch, where the murderous Kray twins offed their competitors, and were likely responsible for various headless corpses that bobbed to the surface in the oily waters of the rainswept docklands.
That was the Hackney that resident Craig McLean describes in a piece in highlife, British Airways’ in-flight magazine. “Back in the last century,” McLean writes, “you wouldn’t rush to travel along the River Lea. The water was brackish, the waterside buildings dilapidated, the shadows deep and scary. Even the ducks were feral. You’d only head out east to Stratford if you were lost or mad.”
In 1896, Robertson described the stadium in Athens as “till very recently a scene of desolation”. Much the same could have been said of Stratford. East London is where the end of the British Empire could, until quite recently, be seen first-hand in the abandoned wharves, the rusting cranes and ruined, empty warehouses. Then Britain won the bid to host the 2012 games — its third after 1908 and 1948 — and the Olympic broom made clean sweeps through Stratford and Hackney, which once had a high street that the locals called “Murder Mile”.
Now the borough is on the up and up. There are hip places to eat, cool clubs, nice bars. And just up the road is Stratford’s Olympic Park.
As a former industrial complex, the Olympic site was desperately foul. Even the ground itself was poisoned. “They actually washed the sand,” Adam tells me. “They set up a washing plant and cleaned it. And they probably fished a lot of supermarket trolleys out of the river too.”
We arrive in Stratford in double quick time, and so it should be after a £6.5-billion transport upgrade — the whole party will cost Britain an estimated £12-billion (or £24-billion, depending on who you believe) — and join the human crocodile shuffling slowly towards the Olympian gates. Everybody is in jolly fine spirits. In fact, the spirit in London has never been better. The city is all smiles. People stop to help tourists find their way. Londoners keep telling me they hope the feeling lasts.
Policemen and volunteers direct the human traffic towards the security cordons where the British Army — drafted in following difficulties with the original contractor — politely scan everyone and everything that enters the gates.
Inside, the park feels like a fairground where all the rides have gone missing. There are manicured paths and swathes of green grass and stadia and spiffy apartment blocks, and it’s a far cry from the 1948 austerity games, when the athletes ran on cinder tracks and the Brits were all skinny and malnourished after six years of war.
It is only when we sag onto our seats in the tropical heat of the Aquatics Centre that it really feels like the Olympic Games. The MC works the crowd like it’s a rock concert. “Put your hands together,” he yells. “Are you having fun?” The crowd roars. New Order and The Clash boom from the speakers and when the opening bars of London Calling thunder into the bleachers, England goes berserk.
For two hours, I watch enthralled as the world’s best swimmers battle for a crack at a medal. I see Chad Le Clos take the 100m butterfly in just under 52 seconds. I watch, heart in mouth, as Karin Prinsloo wins a spot in the women’s 200m backstoke semi-final, but Wendy Trott misses out on a place in the 800m freestyle final. As I wonder what it takes to race 16 lengths of an Olympic pool, Nigerian journalist Wole Shadare leans over and says, “Diz is toff.”
The teenaged rockets dominate the pool. Are they fish? Roland Schoeman qualifies for South Africa in the 50m freestyle, a race that the MC keeps reminding us is “a real splash ’n dash” every time the starting gun goes.
After two hours, I know everyone is thinking the same thing: “Is Michael Phelps human or just a machine?”
Afterwards, I go looking for Hackney’s gentrification but I get lost and find myself an hour later handing over 15 quid for a ride on a 90-foot steel barge taking Olympic workers back to London.
The barge heads down the Lea, past the mouth of the Bow Back River before swinging east into Limehouse Cut, an old canal that cuts across the Isle of Dogs and through Tower Hamlets, once one of the scariest places in Britain.
We chug along the Cut, heading towards the beckoning spire of Canary Wharf. This is a part of London few people see. Brick chimneys poke skywards from lost factories. Former warehouses, now apartments, rise up on each bank. A line of rusting barges rocks in our wake.
We duck under low railway bridges and skirt the edge of the redbrick Spratt’s factory, where old man Spratt once made a fortune in dog food, not to mention the four million biscuits a week he supplied to British soldiers fighting the Boers. The river smells like the Jukskei — dank and sweetly corrupt — but there are families of coots paddling behind us so it can’t be all bad.
The other passengers are full of stories about life on the canals. Is Hackney a good place to live these days, I ask. “It’s very nice, mate,” says one, “but I wouldn’t live here at night.”
Half an hour later we motor into the Limehouse Basin. My phone beeps. It’s my girl. The South African coxless four have just snatched gold from under the very bows of the British and Danish crews.
So tell me, Mr Robertson, who is lamentably prehistoric now? — Ash was a guest of British Airways and The Berkeley, London