Tag Archive for Mo Farah

Mo Farah and the two faces of Olympic legacy

Wow.  Well, well, well.  A truly euphoric day spent in the Olympic Park, on the last day of the Games’ athletics programme.  And now, the next morning, I’m sitting with my laptop propped on my duvet, trying to write before the pleasure of the previous twenty-four hours inevitably fades.  It feels like the final day of one of the best vacations I have ever taken.

These two weeks have been an impossible high that will soon subside.  And that’s fine.  No feeling of ecstasy can truly endure.  After all, even the greatest love affairs can’t maintain their initial breathlessness.  There are those first two weeks of almost every golden relationship when you can’t keep your eyes or your hands away from the other person.  However, after that glorious fortnight, your senses need to return to the world around you, much as you may still be loved-up. Hey, there are bills to pay and jobs to do.

But, like all great loves, the memory of this moment must endure.  Yesterday, I saw a version of Britain that I rarely see in the media.  And it was thrilling.  I saw volunteers, regularly working 14-15 hour days, powered by little more than pride in this city and their country and the warmth of their new community of peers.  I saw architecture as inspiring as anything I have seen in and around New York’s Central Park.  I saw people united in their love of competitors who actually seemed to become more humble the more that they achieved.

I also saw an Olympic Park that too few people were able to experience.  I had friends frantically contacting me at the last minute, asking me to help them sell wildly overpriced tickets that they had bought in haste.  I heard of local children who had worked on this project for three years prior to the arrival of the Games, but who were not granted the chance to step into the Park to see the extraordinary culmination of their efforts.

I saw fervent commerce: a monolithic McDonalds in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, a steady diet on whose fast food would be one sure way to deny admission as an athlete.  By contrast, I heard of Leyton market-traders sold expensive licences on the promise of Olympic business that never emerged.

All this, both good and bad, was the legacy of the Games.  The story of a truly astonishing spectacle made by countless hands; and the story of those who were swept aside as it was created.

Last night I watched Mo Farah win the men’s 5,000 metres final on a screen the size of a shopping mall, surrounded by thousands of similarly elated Brits.  For only the second time in my life – the first being the election of President Barack Obama, given the symbolism of that occasion – I was moved by a public spectacle to tears of joy.  That joy is fleeting, even though it still simmers in me as I write now.  It has lasted long enough, though, to remind me that there is a Britain out there which celebrates the good achievements of people regardless of where their parents came from; that there is a Britain out there, far from the sneering mouths of many, which lauds its often-lambasted youth for their wonderful work ethic.  It is a reminder that I needed, as it is a Britain that I do not see nearly enough of in public discourse.  For now, the memory of Mo will have to do.

“British”, a poem about Team GB and national pride at London 2012

I wrote and performed this poem for the BBC World Service Weekend programme, and it was broadcast on the last Saturday of the Olympic Games.  I thought I would post the text here.

This is
What it means to be British –
To take part in a race,
Hoping to win –
But expecting a last-place finish.
Yes, this is British –
To make it all the way to a tie-break
And then brick it.
We are the world’s biggest optimists
Hidden inside the most hostile of cynics.
The glass in our crystal balls
Is overcast.

But maybe this has changed.
Maybe British now means –
British is

Bradley Wiggins!
Hoy, Rutherford and Farah –
Jones, Murray, Ennis, Adams!
Maybe British is beating anyone – everyone –
Et cetera!…
Maybe –
We should calm down.
With the exception of these two weeks,
It’s not every day that we’ll win a world crown.
But I hope that this next image will always be British –
We throw that house party that anyone can visit,
With guests from far and wide
Bringing any number of different dishes:
And when we’ve eaten, we stand awkwardly against the wall,
Until our guests tug us, smiling, into the middle of the floor.

Jessica, Mo, Greg, and snatching our flag back

Yesterday was one of the greatest days in the history of British sport, and I didn’t watch a single second of it.  Great Britain won six gold medals, and meanwhile I was spending six hours on a round-trip via coach to Birmingham, where I was performing at a poetry festival.  What’s more, at about half-six that evening, I was offered a ticket to the Olympic boxing: which would have been fine, but for the fact that I was over a hundred miles away at the time.  Timing, eh.

It was a tiring day of travel, and so I fell asleep on the crowded bus home, my novel untouched in the bag beside me.  I woke to the news on my Twitter feed that, in the space of one glorious evening, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford had won gold for Great Britain.  Somewhat saddened that I had not seen these victories in real time, I walked into Victoria train station, where I saw dozens of Union flags hanging from the ceiling of the concourse.  And then the funniest thing happened.  I broke into the widest possible smile.

This was a big thing for me.  Maybe even huge.  To be diplomatic, I have an awkward relationship with the Union flag.  It’s all those years in my teens when I saw it draped outside pubs as a warning for my sort to steer clear.  It’s all those times I saw it emblazoned across flyers for the British National Party, which every now and then found their way through my letterbox.  But there I was, grinning at those fluttering flags like a friend I’d not seen in years.

The Union flag had been kidnapped some time ago by the BNP.  But last night, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford snatched it back.  For me, Britishness – if it means anything – has always meant a sense of belonging to a greater whole, despite our disparate backgrounds.  In a society that is still so riven by class division and economic inequality, this is perhaps an aspiration rather than a reality, but that night in Victoria station it felt gloriously possible.  I have our wonderful gold medallists to thank for that.  And now, I think, it is time to go and watch their highlights.