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

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.

The day after picking up my tickets, I went to dinner at the home of a world-famous French architect no one had ever heard of. He claimed that Parisians were still breathing a collective sigh of relief that they had not been lumbered with the Games for which they’d enthusiastically pitched. With hotels in London greatly overpriced (that is, before it became obvious that there was actually a surplus of accommodation on the market), many people had elected to stay in Paris and commute back and forth on the Eurostar. This seemed frankly incroyable, a bitter Gallic response to Wiggo winning the Tour de France in their own back yard. A hint of Anglo-French antipathy—and I swear I was not the one to start it—seeped into every corner of the conversation. During the default chat about who had tickets for what, one of the guests announced that she was going to the archery. I expressed the view that the equipment had become so technologically advanced as to diminish its appeal. So when was the equipment at its optimum? demanded the French architect, baring his teeth, little realizing that he had just bitten into a perfectly baited trap.

“Well, since you ask,” I replied, “I would have to say Agincourt.” It may have been a low blow, but it was one met with a big—and, as it happened, premonitory—round of patriotic applause.

That was the moment, for me, when the competitive spirit of the Games went from being an abstract idea to something tangible, the moment when, to quote Churchill, the world realized we were in earnest.

We carried that earnestness into the first day of competition, when Team GB—as the population as a whole had been encouraged to think of itself—had high hopes of kicking things off with a gold medal for cyclist Mark Cavendish in the men’s road race. The fact that he failed to get any kind of medal made one think that, in the symbolic scheme of things, the opening ceremony should have included not only the lighting of a flame but also its immediate extinction in some kind of gigantic maw—to represent the taste of ashes in the mouth: the very taste of Britishness.

You can gauge how long people have lived in London by their willingness to travel: the longer they’ve been here the more reluctant they are to venture beyond their neighborhoods. Add to this the way we had been warned, so often, about how crowded the city and its transport network would become, and it seemed foolish to leave the house for nonessential travel. The Olympics constituted essential travel, of course, and most events required my heading farther east than I had ever been. The distances were immense, the times record-breakingly long, and my dismay at having to schlep over to East London was tempered by relief that it wasn’t all happening on my doorstep.

Knowing my aversion to travel, my wife bet me £5 that, by Wednesday of the second week, I would give her my ticket to Olympic Stadium because I couldn’t face the journey. What she didn’t know was that each ticket came with an extraordinary bonus feature: a nine-zone travel pass. Nine zones! That could probably get you to Poland in the east and Ireland in the west.

Nevertheless, a weird lassitude set in. We had to force ourselves to get on our bikes and pedal up to Knightsbridge in order to catch the women’s cycling road race. It started pouring when we were fifty yards from home. We cycled through Hyde Park in the lashing rain and got to Harrods with minutes to spare. The cyclists were preceded by cops on motorbikes, who gestured triumphantly to the crowd and were greeted with damp cheers in return. Three cyclists came blurring and whizzing by in the rain. Then a pack of about thirty, then a few more, followed by so many support vehicles it seemed more like a slow-motion car chase than a cycling event. We stood in the drizzle, asking the same question everyone else was asking: Was that it? Even if it wasn’t, we cycled home and sat on our nice dry sofa watching the tennis and lamenting the banks of disgracefully empty seats. There was something deeply satisfying about this, since I myself had created an empty seat at that day’s women’s weight lifting. It wasn’t just that I couldn’t face going all the way to the ExCeL arena (though that was part of it, and my wife duly tried to claim her £5). A survivor of many a World Cup and Olympics TV-watching campaign, I knew that the crucial thing was not to get out of the blocks too soon and end up sated, not to squander one’s enthusiasm on the marvelous bottoms of the beach volleyballers, but to remain fresh and hungry for the athletics. The problem was that if one kept extrapolating from this strategy in order to achieve a state of peak excitement, the best policy was to skip the whole thing so that one was razor sharp for Rio four years down the road. Would London 2012 pass me by even as I was experiencing it? To that extent it seemed a precise parable of life itself.

And then, gradually, everything changed; I changed, the nation changed. The gymnastics was on TV, the badminton was on TV, the swimming was on TV—and I was on my way to the table tennis at the ExCeL. In a place big enough to accommodate a couple of tennis courts, the lone table looked absurd. (It was a further refinement of the way that, at the heart of the Zone in Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, there lies a place called the Room. Within this room—the ExCeL arena—was . . . the Table.) Bathed in the swirl and flash of lights, the Table was like an altar or shrine incapable of sustaining the faith invested in its creation. Easy for me to say, since I was not one of the ping-pong faithful and had no idea what I was seeing. The day’s event turned out to be the two medal-deciding matches in the women’s singles, both preceded by a lengthy buildup of music and videos that did an excellent job of diminishing what was being built up to. The match for bronze, when it finally started, was totally one-sided, but the all-Chinese final—Li Xiaoxia versus Ding Ning—was a quite bizarre affair. Some of the rallies looked like they’d been constructed using CGI, but the real drama centered on Ding’s serve, which, at one point, seemed to involve hitting the ball with the side of her paddle. A knowledgeable neighbor informed me that this was her specialty, but it was hard to see what advantage might have come her way in the best of circumstances; here it succeeded only in getting her a second penalty to go with an earlier warning following a less audacious serve. Already upset, she complained to the inscrutable Italian umpire, who showed her a combination of red and yellow cards. For a moment it seemed Ding had been disqualified, that the whole thing had been brought to a premature end, but apparently the cards signified only another warning.

It had been a long way to travel for an hour’s worth of the best ping-pong on earth, which appeared to be facing an uphill struggle to make the grade as a mass-spectator sport. Still, it was better value than the worst badminton on earth, in which four teams tried deliberately to lose. The idea was to avoid facing stronger opponents later in the competition; the players succeeded beyond their wildest dreams—by getting booted out of the tournament for their lack of pains.

No such problem with the women’s gymnastics, which I went to the day after the ping-pong. No, the difficulty there was that with so much to look at you were always missing out on something else. Focused on the uneven bars, you wondered why a sixteen-year-old executing a maneuver that confounded several laws of physics had been greeted with a collective groan: it was because that killjoy gravity had made a sudden comeback and snatched another girl off the balance beam. Meanwhile the whole place was rocking to the music accompanying the floor routine, and, off to one side, another pubescent blur and sparkle of flexilimbs was charging up to do the vault. I found it almost impossible to collate the different parts of the competition until they were stitched together in a tense and comprehensible narrative on TV later that night. A constant theme and conflict, this: Yes, of course one wanted to be there, but a core part of the experience of being there involved wondering whether one wouldn’t be better off watching at home. Hence, I suspect, the entirely satisfying pleasure of watching on TV in the evening an event you had attended earlier in the day—especially if you caught a glimpse of yourself in the crowd. (I didn’t.)

Everyone was remarking on the friendliness and efficiency of the volunteers and soldiers at all the venues, but there was a sense that all this goodwill was emanating from and converging on the Olympic Park and Olympic Stadium, which was the reactor core of the whole operation. Although Team GB had started winning medals in cycling and rowing, the athletics was always going to be the central attraction. And now, at long last, it was getting under way.

The training of soldiers normally places less emphasis on charm than on the unleashing of ordered violence, but the ones at the stadium greeted us as if we’d paid a fortune (we had!) for a collective honeymoon at a luxurious resort. Joining them was an army of volunteers who made sure you couldn’t get lost even if you tried your damnedest and didn’t speak a word of English. The atmosphere was great from the moment you got off the train, and it was even better in the stadium. But this, evidently, was not enough for the MCs or whatever they should be called, who went through the same routine of mood-inflation I’d observed at the ping-pong, urging everyone to “make some noise.” In case the noise was not enough, there was the constant throb of music—Britpop, classic rock, dance—while the athletes competed. I couldn’t hear this music during the TV coverage of the events. Perhaps the BBC found a way to filter it out, just as the athletes had to block it from their minds as they were concentrating on the long, high, or triple jump. Or maybe not. Maybe they’re so accustomed to training while jacked into their iPods that they’d be lost without it. Either way, the music created the impression that these were the attention-deficit Games, that we even have trouble concentrating on things by which we are wholly absorbed.

It would have been better if we’d just had the clapping, cheering, and roaring, which was nearly deafening for heptathlete Jessica Ennis on that first morning and got louder and louder until Mo Farah won the 5,000 meters on the final Saturday of competition eight days later. Team GB athletes got the biggest ovations, especially once it became apparent that a sufficient volume of noise could help suck a British athlete over the finishing line ahead of his or her rivals, thereby creating the agreeable sensation that voluble spectating was also a form of participation. The other great thing was that wanting your guy or team to win carried no obligation, as it does in football, to chant things about the opposition’s mothers’ fondness for anal sex. Those coming in last, way behind the rest of the field, were always greeted as though crossing the line (eventually) were a feat worthy of the great Lasse Virén himself. “It is no sin to advance limping,” wrote the poet Friedrich Rückert—a point raucously affirmed by the 80,000 people watching Merve Aydin somehow complete the 800 meters in spite of being barely able to walk. Sarah Attar also got massive encouragement, in acknowledgement of the double disadvantage of representing the Desert Kingdom of Misogyny and, as a consequence, having to run with legs and head covered. Given that the other women were running in little more than bikinis—not only to titillate the audience, but also, presumably, to aid performance—this was like having to wade around the track in an army greatcoat.

The people in the queue for tickets were right: the atmosphere really was wonderful. When people noticed it and remarked on how nice it was, the atmosphere got even better and spread throughout the capital until, by the end of the first week of the Games, it had engulfed the entire nation and nobody wanted to spoil it by doing or saying anything impolite or churlish. We took the credit, deservedly (it was our party, after all), but it also happened because people from around the world had turned up with as much beer—metaphorically speaking—as we had laid on ourselves.

The party reached the first of many levels of frenzy on Super Saturday, when the whole country went, as Dizzee Rascal put it in the opening ceremony, bonkers. Golds for Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, and Mo Farah! To see how amazing this was we need to go back to that ashes-in-the-gob point made earlier. We’d had individual and isolated triumphs before (Linford Christie, the Rugby World Cup, and so on), and we’d done well in Beijing four years earlier, but since 1066—sorry, I mean 1966—the dominant feeling in sport had been of disappointment. And it wasn’t just that we had failed at whichever sport happened to be going wrong at any given time; there was also the sense that some kind of fable was being enacted, that our dismal showing (relative to exaggerated expectations) was an accurate reflection of our fallen status in the world. And now, suddenly, we were winning everything in sight. It was like being Victorian again!

But even here, at the moment of supreme triumph, there was a problem, just as there had been in the opening ceremony. You hear some of the national anthems—the “Marseillaise,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or, in a different way, the Polish one, which begins with the poignantly negative reminder that “Poland is not yet lost”—and your spirits are raised up. During Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute in Mexico City in 1968, the anthem and the flag were ideals appealed to, and the athletes’ raised fists indicated how far American reality fell short. But when the wonderful Jessica Ennis stood up on the podium to receive her gold medal, we had to sit (I choose the verb carefully) through our vile national anthem. In an event honoring hard work, personal achievement, and merit, we celebrated with a hymn to hereditary power and what Tom Nairn called the glamour of backwardness. And not only that: to show how much we loved Jess we were expected, in a mood of national euphoria, to join in and sing the words “long to reign over us.” (No, not Jess, but the frigging Queen, whose achievements depend on precisely one thing: being born.) It’s the kind of sentiment we laugh about when we hear the brainwashed North Koreans pledge allegiance to Kim Jong Un.

The moment the anthem was over we could genuinely rejoice again—and the rejoicing continued into the next week as the medals and the good news kept pouring in. It became clear that a lot of our worrying had been unnecessary. This city can take pretty much anything that’s thrown at it. Because the infrastructure is always poised to go belly-up, the arrival of an extra million people made no difference. And with everyone screaming their heads off way out east, the West End was deserted. You could go to the theater, eat in overpriced restaurants, and generally do all the things you normally had no desire to do—except you couldn’t, because every moment was taken up getting to the Olympics, being at the Olympics, or coming home and watching the Olympics on TV.

Even the thing that I’d been dreading—the travel—turned out to be a pleasure. The trains worked so well that members of the American basketball team were spotted riding them, thereby adding to the feeling usually associated with disaster (and dishonestly co-opted by David Cameron and the Tories in these times of austerity) that we are all in this together. But it took its toll, this scurrying around to distant venues. One’s day was pretty much shot to hell after a three-hour session of athletics and the journey to the stadium and back. I had to keep reminding myself that plenty of people had far more grueling commutes than this every day, starting earlier in the morning, finishing later at night, covering longer distances, with full working days in the middle and heads full of booze at the end.

My tickets were all for sessions when no medals were decided. This seemed fine at first, but the heat goes out of the heats once the finals have started. Fortunately, we were able to buy tickets for Tuesday evening at Olympic Stadium through an acquaintance of my wife’s. Amazing seats—six rows back, on the finishing straight—with several finals on the bill: a totally different experience. On TV or from high up in the stands they are gods, these athletes, even when they have stopped running and jumping. Only a few retain their godlike status up close; the majority just look like young people with gorgeous bodies who can run very fast.

It was raining a bit. We were seated in front of an Australian woman who became irate because, just before the start of the 100-meter hurdles, people nearby were obstructing the view with their umbrella. The reason she was so uptight, it turned out, was that her daughter, Sally Pearson, was in the race—and ended up winning it. So we were right there when Sally did a lap of honor and waved to her mum and embraced her husband. It established a clear line of descent from excelling at school sports day (the chance, often, for kids who were not too smart in class to have their moment in the sun—a tendency taken to a further extreme by swimming day, when the real dumbos could make their splash) to catching the attention, briefly, of the world.

So, we’d been to an evening event, we’d seen some finals, we’d glimpsed that rare, severely endangered beast, the Australian gold medalist, and were free to watch the rest of the Games on telly. The TV had been on a lot in the first few days, and now it was on all the time. It was possible to experience again the wonder sardonically expressed by Raymond Chandler: “Television is really what we’ve been looking for all our lives.” The amount of TV consumed was, to use the gold-medal word of the Games, unbelievable. When the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen won the 400-meter individual medley, American swimming coach John Leonard called the result “disturbing,” and former world champion Ariana Kukors called it “unbelievable.” Before Leonard used the u-word he said he would “put quotation marks around” it, so that “unbelievable” became “ ‘unbelievable.’ ” For a short while afterward the word unbelievable became a dangerously loaded weapon. Was it even possible to use it without quotation marks? When Chad le Clos pipped Michael Phelps at the post for gold in the 200-meter butterfly, his exuberant father, Bert, was interviewed on TV and kept saying it was “unbelievable.” Obviously he intended this in the sense of “amazing,” but there were two other possibilities: that he was casting doubt on his own son (!) or—and this is the one I favor—that he was quote/unquote “quoting” Leonard and Kukors (“ ‘ “unbelievable” ’ ”) and thereby negating the negation.

Thereafter everything became unbelievable every night. Believe me, of all insider stories from the Games, the one I would most like to hear is Michael Johnson’s account of his stint in the BBC press box alongside former heptathlete Denise Lewis and former hurdler Colin Jackson. Both British, Lewis and Jackson shared a deeply held belief that the best way to articulate what was happening was to call it unbelievable, hard to put into words, and indescribable, or, during interludes of supreme excitement, to let loose a torrent of indescribable drivel. By the end of his deployment Johnson looked like someone who, having agreed to take care of a pair of kids for ten minutes, ended up running a day care for a fortnight.

It’s not just the athletes-turned-pundits; today’s competitors are required to explain on camera how it feels to have their dreams realized or smashed just moments after either eventuality. It was during one of these interviews that I went from following the Games in a passive sort of way to being totally caught up in their beauty. My wife and I had been watching male team gymnastics, somewhat baffled by the incremental deviations from perfection that determine the scores. Britain were jostling with Ukraine for a bronze, and then, suddenly, thanks to a couple of apparent mishaps by the Japanese on the pommel horse, we were awarded a silver. The Japanese asked for an “inquiry,” which led to our silver being knocked back to a bronze (and the Ukrainians to fourth). The crowd booed a bit, but the response of the British team captain, twenty-three-year-old Louis Smith, who looks like he’s in a boy band (and has indeed auditioned for The X Factor), was exemplary. Team GB were very happy to see Japan get a medal, he said. “If the judges have got something wrong and they deserve to get a silver medal, then they deserve that silver medal.” We want to see people excel physically, but the great Olympic moments tend to be those where physical perfection or grace is matched by its ethical or moral equivalent. The name of this physical and moral synthesis goes by the humble and sometimes rather wan-sounding term “good sportsmanship”—almost entirely lacking from football—and, amazingly, Smith was called on to demonstrate more of the same the following week, when he was denied gold by the narrowest of margins on the individual pommel horse. And it wasn’t just Smith. I lost track of the number of times beaten competitors, instead of making excuses and berating officials (the distasteful norm in football), paid fulsome tribute to the people who had bested them.

Naturally all this nobility could be sustained only on condition that it was occasionally deflated. After failing to make the final of the 1,500 meters, Ross Murray conceded it had been too much to expect after six months of training preceded by “two years on the lash.” (This was also an insight into how U.K. athletics scouts operate: descending on the High Street of an unsuspecting town on a Saturday night and, like leopards in the veld, chasing after drunk teenagers. The difference is that whereas the feline predators go for the weak or the injured, our talent spotters are interested in whoever proves most difficult to catch.) The best moment of all was the interview with Britain’s gold-medal-winning show-jumping team. First up was the creaky-looking Nick Skelton, who listed his previous injuries—including a broken neck—before talking about the surgical pleasures that lay ahead. “I’ve got to have a back replacement,” he said stoically. Asked what effect he thought his gold medal would have on his life, Scott Brash, a younger member of the team, thought long and hard before deciding, “I really hope it improves my pulling power with women.” After pausing for further reflection, he went on, “Yeah, I think that’s about it.”

You need this kind of thing, because a lot of the time you are so busy weeping. We were all at it. Félix Sánchez is probably still at it. Partly this was a matter of cultural contagion—as with yawning or laughing, once one person starts crying, everyone else tears up in sympathy. But it was also because of the profundity of the experience we were witnessing—and by witnessing (to revert to an earlier point), participating in. How could one not be moved to the depths of one’s being by achieving—or, just as movingly, falling short of—the goal to which one had dedicated one’s life: i.e., watching telly! Perhaps that was the most extraordinary thing: the way that spending all those hours watching TV felt like the opposite of a waste of time. In its way it was as satisfying as sitting through the Ring cycle or a reading of the Mahabharata.

The only thing lacking was tragedy. There was disappointment and despair. There were injuries and accidents—the guy in the American relay team who kept running in spite of a broken leg, the wherever-he-was-from weight lifter who had a quarter of a ton of steel land on his chest-size neck. A few people or teams were disqualified for technical infringements of one kind or another. (Marx said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce; when something happens for the third or fourth time it’s called the British 4×100-meter-relay team.) A few dopes we’d never heard of got busted for doping, but there was nothing akin to Ben Johnson’s fall from grace in Seoul. Only sport and warfare can create heroes who rise to a sufficient height—and who are also sufficiently flawed—to supply anything like the stuff of Shakespearean or Athenian tragedy. Johnson, Maradona, Tyson, and Senna attained heights of glory currently occupied only by Bolt and Phelps—and then they came crashing down. No one of equivalent stature came a truly tragic cropper in London. But without doubt we had experienced something life-affirming in the midst of economic calamity. It makes one wonder: Is there such a thing as the opposite of catharsis?

The day after the closing ceremony I had to go to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival. The festival is big enough and the city small enough that the two become indistinguishable. The city is the festival and the festival is the city. The Olympics was the first time, in my experience, that London had totally given itself over to an event that was happening in it. (I was living in Rome when the European football championships were held in England and—a different kind of communal experience—after the death of Princess Diana.) Taking their cue from the Olympic volunteers, everyone, instead of just doing their jobs and going about their business, brought a little extra to the table. Announcers on the Tube made jokes. Instructions from train staff were accompanied by smiles. We all did what we were told with smiles. Every interaction was accompanied by a little halo, an extra reverb of pleasantness and goodwill. Everyone was in a good mood and on their best behavior and happy to be part of things, to be part of a culture and country that enjoyed success and pleasantness rather than embracing defeat and putting up with things. Starting to sound familiar? Remind you of someplace else? Yes, that’s right: it was like being in America! Watching the Games, I thought again and again of Raymond Williams’s insistent plea, back in 1958, that this was a nation, not a firm. For thirty years we’d been a firm. Then, for the past three, we’d been a firm in receivership. Now, for a fortnight, we felt like a nation again.

On the morning of the final Saturday, my wife and I were offered tickets for the evening session, which included the 4×100-meter relay (Bolt and the Jamaicans) and the 5,000 meters (Mo Farah going for his second gold). Eight hundred and fifty quid a pop. A ludicrous amount of money. We said no, and then, as the evening unfolded in front of the TV, the temporal basis of the calculation shifted from a cost of about £425 an hour to $1,400 for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. So we sat there, a two-person firm, tormented both by the fact that we could have been there if we’d forked over the dough, and by the way the marketing of financial services had proved so insidiously invasive that we had internalized the some-things-money-can’t-buy-for-everything-else-there’s-MasterCard philosophy of expenditure. Sitting at home as Mo Farah was cheered home I wasn’t sure whether I had been part of something or had missed out on it. How naïve and deluded of me to assume that one cannot miss out on something while being part of it!

Our last participatory act was to cycle over to see the marathon runners the next day as they trotted swiftly past Buckingham Palace. The weather was properly summery. People from all over the world were there, cheering, waving the proud and splendid flags we’d seen on TV at the opening ceremony. Celebrating the sweet milk of concord, I was waving the French flag, the good old tricolor. Vive la République! Later that night we watched the closing ceremony on TV, saw that other Johnson, the loathsome Boris, hand over the Olympic flag to his opposite number from Rio. The speech by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, in which he asked the youth of the world to gather four years hence, and the extinguishing of the Olympic flame were incredibly moving (as they always are), but the rest of it, the so-called symphony of British music, seemed deliberately intended as a form of ritualistic decompression, resetting us to the workaday norm. Such things were only said in private. No one wanted to spoil the party, even if this bit of the party looked and sounded like crap and the real party was already over. And so we all applauded as we had the night before, and as we had at Buckingham Palace earlier in the afternoon when the marathon runners passed along in sunshine and shade and everyone clapped and cheered and made their usual uproar.

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

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September 2016

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