Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

London going for gold as best Olympics venue ever

Winners: the Olympic Games have lifted British spirits as the gold medal victory of Mary Peters lifted spirits here in 1972

Could anyone do it better than the Chinese? The answer is emphatically that London and the UK are doing the Olympic Games of 2012 better than anyone might have imagined.

For all the state-controlled might of Beijing, with its seemingly unlimited power to replace whole neighbourhoods of people with roads and awesome sports stadia, London is showing the world a far more attractive and welcoming face.

I was privileged to be in Beijing for the Olympics of 2008, but I will feel even more privileged to be in London later this week in the knowledge that the prophets of doom and despondency have been silenced.

There were many - including myself - who thought that no city on Earth could compete with what the Chinese offered in Beijing.

Extraordinary experience as it was, I doubt if many of the visitors and competitors in 2012 will think any less of London, where the Olympic site was completed ahead of schedule and will be a lasting legacy in what was formerly a much-neglected corner of the capital.

I can testify to that at first hand, because, along with other journalists, I was taken to see the venue in its infancy. The taxi-driver at Stratford station three years ago took me to a run-down street in east London and to a block of basic apartments on the top floor of which we were introduced to Dame Kelly Holmes and some of the organisers of 2012.

The location was chosen because it overlooked the Olympic site.

At that time, it was more akin to a rubbish dump. What passed for the River Lea, was a grotty, overgrown waterway, spiked with supermarket trolleys and other urban debris.

I remember thinking this would not be out of place in the most deprived corner of Belfast, yet this week it is the centre of attention around the world and has been transformed into not only the venue for the Olympic Games of 2012, but also a park which people will enjoy for decades to come.

No matter how many medals Team GB achieves, London and the UK, including Northern Ireland, is the really big winner.

No matter the cost, it is money well spent if it helps to reverse an image of a people who cannot do what their fathers and grandfathers did, who can't get things right, meet deadlines on time, or who have lost European and global influence. The 2012 Games cannot be other than London-centric because that is where the main action takes place. Whatever the Olympic city's location, it is bound to benefit most.

However, every Olympic city is also a standard-bearer for the wider country, as was so rightly evident at Friday's epic opening ceremony.

Danny Boyle's breath-taking production reflected the nations and regions of the UK, including Northern Ireland.

At £27m, it was a story that needed telling to the world, if only to show that the UK does not begin and end just north of Watford. Great Britain and Northern Ireland are the sum of multi-cultural diversity. We spend so much time trying to demonstrate our differences that we can easily fail to see how closely we are bound together, in kith and kin, in culture, language, custom and tradition.

The carrying of the Olympic torch across Britain, but also from Northern Ireland to the Republic, and the recognition and welcome given wherever it went, was another welcome sign that we are starting to develop a greater degree of understanding across these islands.

The Olympics provide milestone moments in our lives. For my part, 1972 remains the most special.

I recall interviewing Mary Peters exactly 40 years ago in Buster McShane's gymnasium in central Belfast during the worst year of the Troubles.

Barbed-wire barriers were erected at each end of the street to protect it from car-bombs.

Mary withstood all the dangers and difficulties in her preparation for the Olympics and returned a month later with her gold medal proudly around her neck.

We welcomed her to the Belfast Telegraph offices and then she set off down Royal Avenue on a flat-bed lorry to acknowledge the applause of people from all walks of life.

She had returned from the Olympics two months after Bloody Friday as an inspirational heroine to a city whose heart had been torn apart.

Success in sport has an ability to lift people and countries in the most trying of times.

The sense of elation and pride may be only fleeting, but, occasionally, it can also have a truly lasting impact.

London 2012 might yet do just that.

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