Letter from London — From the November 2012 issue

A Brief Period of Rejoicing

Never mind the European meltdown, here’s the Olympics!

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As the summer of 2012 approached, the third coming of the Olympics to London began to feel like an impending apocalypse—especially after it became clear that Britain was in the grips of total financial collapse, and that any money left in the national piggy bank would have to bail out Greece, where, recent research has shown, the Games were invented as a way of bleeding money from the more frugal tribes of northern Europe. A roughly $15 billion beast was slouching towards London. Then, when the riots broke out last year, it looked like the foreign hordes who had gobbled up tickets that should have been ours (we don’t mind them coming over here and taking the jobs we don’t want to do ourselves, but coming over here with tickets for something we no longer wanted was another matter) might cancel their flights and apply for refunds. We would be left alone to roam the smoking ruins of deserted stadia and looted branches of Foot Locker.

But we cleaned up the mess and got back to moaning about the day-to-day inconveniences. One of the things to moan about was the way that the huge riches to be made from leaving town and renting out one’s flat to gullible foreigners for the duration of the Olympics didn’t materialize. So many rats had fled the sinking ship of Ukania that there was a sudden surplus of property on the market. Served them right, because, from the get-go (if you’ll forgive me for blowing my own little trumpet), I had decreed that it was madness not to be in London for the Games, that even if you didn’t have tickets for any events it would be more fun watching them on TV in London than in New York or Rome. This was a “once-in-a-lifetime experience”—I used that very phrase—and to miss out on it voluntarily was lunacy.

I stayed true to my pledge even as the bad news kept getting worse. The sky loomed more and more darkly—and then the rains came. The sun god, Helios, went elsewhere for his holidays, leaving us with a torrential antisummer, a monsoon minus the heat. Cheryl, the stallholder from whom I buy fruit and veg each day on Portobello Road, said it was becoming more and more difficult to get decent produce. Because it had all been turned to mush by the rain? No, because the Olympics-specific traffic restrictions meant people were having trouble getting their soggy old greens into London. We were in a city under siege, like Berlin during the blockade.

What else? It turned out that G4S, the “official Security Services Provider” to the Games, hadn’t got enough people to fulfill its contract at the venues, and so soldiers would have to take their places, thereby creating the impression of a thriving, multicultural democracy in which martial law had been declared. Then, a few days before the opening ceremony, at a football match at Hampden Park in Scotland, the South Korean flag was shown instead of the North Korean one, a gaffe whose sum total of offense caused (to North Korea) was exceeded by the delight enjoyed by the rest of the world. By this point the mood had changed: now we were all rather looking forward to an Olympics that would break previous records for calamities, bloopers, and foul-ups.

My personal involvement got under way when I went to pick up my tickets at Paddington Green. I arrived to find a giant anaconda of a queue. A woman of good character said she had been queuing for four hours and thought that, if all went well, she had only one more hour to go. It was Britain in a nutshell, that queue: an improbable alliance between American-style capitalism (happiness—i.e., tickets—available at a price) and Soviet-style resignation (wasting one’s life waiting for it). I went back a few days later and waited a mere two hours to get to the will-call sign, on which an unknown hand had scribbled the Beckettian message 5 hours to here. The mood in the queue was excellent, and the reason was plain to see and hear: apart from me, everyone was new to our blighted land.

A group of Australians, veterans of the Sydney Olympics, claimed that the individual events were less important than the overall atmosphere. Ticketless friends of these Australians wanted to come to the Olympic Park just for the atmosphere, but since they couldn’t get into the Park without tickets they would have to come after the Games, when nothing would be going on and there would, presumably, be no atmosphere. This pilgrimage of the curious extended to Old Trafford (Manchester United’s HQ) and Twickenham (home of English rugby, with no connection to the Olympics at all)—which seemed the height of pointlessness, but maybe it’s no different than visiting a cathedral when no service is in progress. Actually, it makes more sense than that, because at least sport is a religion in which everyone believes. Sport is the biggest thing on the planet—possibly the universe. If there are sentient beings out there, they will be tuning in to the Olympics tens of thousands of years from now, by which time the achievements of Usain Bolt will seem to have lasted only a matter of seconds (relatively speaking) and the great retail temples of Nike will be buried beneath lone and level sands.

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’s most recent book, Zona, was published by Pantheon in February.

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