Belfast Telegraph

Even I had to utter phwoar at this Olympic spectacle

By Eamonn McCann

Still a bit of time to go. You can never tell. The Games could yet be remembered mainly for the riots. Certainly they'll be remembered for the BBC commentaries. If cheerful gush were an Olympic sport, the Beeb would be as far ahead in medals as New Zealand is ahead of Australia.

There's a thing we all can feel good about. Terrible whingers, the Aussies. I emailed a pal in Auckland asking how it was all going down. "You walk along the street, people are bursting out laughing for no reason." Hardly for no reason. I giggled in global solidarity.

Here we have to listen to previously level-headed commentators - Jon Snow! Kirsty Wark! - striving to hoist the levels of national fervour to heights not experienced since the death in a drunk-driving accident of Diana, Princess of Wales. Remember all that poetry and emotion? Disappeared like tears in the reign.

We are told there'll be a legacy. Perhaps. But - Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens (!), Beijing? There's no evidence of lasting benefit.

Wonderful facilities with bags of wow factor now lie derelict. In the end, always, material reality reasserts itself. London will be no different.

One cheery aspect has been local competitors scattered across the Games representing Ireland or Britain as the structure of their particular discipline has demanded. I am reminded of Northern Ireland's greatest-ever sports star, Margaret Johnston of Bellaghy by way of Tamlaght O'Crilly Orange Hall, who variously represented the Six Counties, Ireland, Britain and Britain and Ireland in winning Irish, British, Commonwealth and World titles.

I once asked her during a period of extreme liveliness in the Bellaghy area how she handled the problems of flags, anthems, identity and so forth. After a pause she replied, "I've never actually had any problems."

It should be acknowledged that there's been little racism on show, which hasn't always been the case. The only cringe-making outburst I'm aware of was directed against Chinese athletes, particularly the brilliant 16-year-old swimmer Ye Shiwen, who won two golds, shaving five seconds off her personal best in setting a world record in the 400 metres medley. Impossible, growled commentators who should have known better. Such spurts of progress are by no means unknown and not at all surprising in someone fiercely-driven and still growing.

If I were asked to specify my most vividly remembered sports moment ever, I'd summon an image of Wang Junxia at Atlanta trying to win the 10,000 metres from the front just a couple of days after taking the 5,000, turning into the straight flailing with exhaustion maybe 10 metres ahead of the brilliant Ribeiro and failing by less than a second to hold on.

She had sprinted to the tape in the 5,000 well ahead of the field, her face ablaze with smile, and Eamonn Coughlan in the RTE studio intoning that, "Here comes the Chinese, inscrutable as ever." Buffoon. Has everybody noticed competitors wearing skimpier clothes than ever? Or the emergence of "phwoar" as a verb. "It is OK to phwoar at the athletes?" asked a cross-channel broadsheet on Tuesday. To which the answer apparently is to feel free as long as what you are ogling is the sheer athleticism signified in those taut tummies. But of course.

I saw a gang of women at the big screen in Waterloo Place in Derry studying the men's gymnastics and, from the look of them, analysing physiques and not techniques, which, to be fair, has become more alluring since the arrival of stretch-fabric uniforms. Of course, the Ancient Olympics were nude.

I have enjoyed the Games so far. I refuse to allow hype, hysteria or the mad nationalism of major medal-winning nations to put me off. Much of the opening ceremony was gorgeous. The NHS segment sent out an eddy of pride in British achievement that not even Lord Coe's leaden prose could compromise.

For the sake of completeness and balance we might have had Thatcher stomping on to close the mines. And blow-dryed Paul McCartney croaking a cliché at the end was a dreadful let-down. How sad that his talent has so crumpled since he took up with the Royals. It could have been worse. It could have been Bono.

But wasn't there even one among the organisers who understood that for the soaring splendour which the climax called for, there was only Florence?

Next stop the Paralympics. One of the main sponsors will be Atos. That's the crowd handling the Government scheme to hound as many disabled people as possible off benefits so as to cut the deficit caused by the rich refusing to pay their taxes. Law of averages, it's likely Atos will soon be taking benefits off a number of Paralympic competitors.

Now there's something people of all persuasions might come onto the streets for, not necessarily to riot but to make appropriate noise and plan campaigns. Wouldn't that be a legacy to make it all worthwhile?

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