On this day a year ago I was on my way to see the greatest show on earth. The Olympic Games in China promised an experience never to be forgotten.
Those of us who were privileged to sit with 91,000 spectators in the Bird’s Nest stadium and watch Usain Bolt run the fastest 100 metres in history, on a balmy Beijing Saturday night in August 2008, were simply gob-smacked.
We felt we were at the focal point of a new world order. We were witnessing more than an historic sporting moment. China had emerged from the twilight of history to claim first place on its own global podium.
I remember the conversation over dinner with my journalist colleagues in Beijing. How could any country match what the Chinese had achieved with their organisation of the Olympics? How could London follow that?
One year on and after visiting the site of the Olympics in London, I have reached a simple conclusion. No bother. Not only can the next Olympics be better and just as memorable but even in the outer reaches of the UK, like Northern Ireland, we must play our part in ensuring that it is.
What a privilege it will be for those from this small province to participate in the London Olympics on our own doorstep. The same can be said for the Republic.
I hope we will all be cheering and proud to be part of the moment if there are medals for any representatives on the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team or the team from the Republic.
It is one thing to compete 5,000 miles away in a foreign land and climate and quite another to be virtually on home territory. The next Olympics will have the potential support of a huge diaspora from north and south who live in Britain. Added to that we have the Olympics within one hour’s air travelling distance from Belfast or Dublin.
The Olympic site in London is being taken somewhat for granted. All you may hear about it is that the budget is overspent and undoubtedly that is the case. But this is a once in a lifetime experience. It has the capacity to restore national pride and attract international recognition to a country which is badly in need of a revival of its fortunes. If it is a success it could even put the “Great” back in Great Britain.
The London 2012 Olympics, I will hazard a bet, will put Beijing in the shade. Why do I say that? Because, first and foremost, the east London site looks impressively ahead of schedule. The great stadium centrepiece which will hold 80,000 spectators is taking shape even at this early stage. So, too, are the other venues.
If you don’t believe me, log in |to the Olympic site and see the |webcam pictures for yourself.
The Olympic site in east London reminded me of a run-down corner of Belfast. My taxi took me through backstreets lined with scrap metal merchants, car repair garages and dilapidated warehouses. It is hard to believe but the greatest show on earth will be performed on an urban wasteland which, until the diggers moved in, had the look of east or west Belfast in the sixties about it.
So, why do I think London will be better than Beijing? Because, the latter had little to offer beyond its famed Forbidden City, to match the character, culture or cosmopolitanism of London.
Many of the participants in the next Olympics, not least those from these shores, will find they are amongst their own in |London and will have strong |spectator support.
What a contrast, too, between a marathon route through the |nondescript modern shopping and office blocks of Beijing (the Chinese knocked down most of their old buildings) and the |preserved historic landmarks of London’s streets.
The soccer matches will be played at the likes of Old Trafford, Hampden Park, the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, St James Park and Villa Park with the final at Wembley.
The rowing will be at Eton Dorney near Windsor Castle. The tennis at Wimbledon. The equestrian events at Greenwich. The archery at Lord’s. The volleyball will be at Earl’s Court.
When it is completed the Olympic site will represent the first major new park in Europe in 150 years. It ticks so many |environmentally-friendly boxes. Above all the Olympics gives every corner of the UK a chance to benefit.
Our local sports organisations must think outside the box on this one. Whether it is soccer, boxing, cycling, badminton, hockey, athletics or other sports we must be asking ourselves how can we attract those who will participate in London to come to this province, to train, to acclimatise, to prepare for 2012 and to |see what Northern Ireland has to offer?
Sadly, we do not have, but should have had, a new stadium for the Olympics. That is a black mark on our politicians here. The Stormont Executive was not decisive and we are left with embarrassingly inadequate facilities for international events.
At least, some local companies on their own initiative should benefit from involvement in the building and organisation of the Olympic site but the tourist authorities here and the Assembly at Stormont must ensure also that Northern Ireland gets some share of the spoils of 2012.
The best way to avoid the Olympics being London-focussed is to be involved regionally and locally. Let’s not be narrow-minded about this. Let’s get stuck in and welcome as many people from the 200 participating countries in the Olympics as we can.
Remember it’s only once in a lifetime that the greatest show on Earth is on your doorstep. As the Chinese recognised in Beijing, no other sporting event can open such a window to the outside world. We must not have our blinds drawn.