Belfast Telegraph

Olympic triumph struck gold in our hearts and minds

By Gail Walker

There's no doubt that the London Olympics were a triumph. It would have been possible for Britain to have staged the Olympics efficiently, and to have got away with it, as it were, in straiteneed financial circumstances.

As it was, the arenas, events, planning, facilities and performances far outstripped expectations. It's no wonder the dominant sensation that built over the two weeks was simple surprise - which turned to astonishment as the medal tally rose.

It's hard to know how you measure the long-term impact of any event, but something in the victories of Team GB galvanised a mood which no-one really thought existed and couldn't have guessed at. At a stroke a whole new roster of stars and role models has emerged. After years of fly by night instant celebs plucked from nowhere, rising without trace from TV talent shows and reality TV, suddenly there's a list of genuine bona fide, hardworking immensely talented individuals of both sexes. Who aren't footballers.

Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Paddy Barnes, Richard and Peter Chambers, Alan Campbell, Michael Conlon, Katie Taylor ... the list goes on. These are the Real McCoy: humble, dedicated, nice people who have proven that privilege or wealth or nastiness or cheating isn't necessary to be admired, valued and loved.

Add to that list the many other heroes and heroines from other countries and there is the sense that their exposure to the British public has had a significant impact. They made people feel better. That's not a small thing and it will be remembered.

Yes, there will be other Olympic Games; yes, the Beijing Games didn't change China noticeably in terms of how it governs itself and treats its people. But this is Britain and this was Britain's Games.

The Opening Ceremony and even Sunday's less winsome Closing Ceremony also seemed to express a strange unexpected self-confidence in the nation, without ever really defining what the nation is but just taking it for granted that there was such a thing - various and diverse and open and generous.

Those aren't characteristics that have been associated with 'Britain' for lifetimes. Gone is stodgy, repressed, joyless, formal, dispute-ridden, class-ridden - in fact practically every negative adjective that you can think of. Gone.

Whether they have gone for good remains to be seen. But it is absolutely clear that these Olympics opened the windows in British society and let the air in.

Equally important for us, was that the Games allowed us to witness the change in British/Irish relations. Not political handshakes nor government agreements but a complete alteration in attitudes and sensibilities on both sides of the Irish Sea.

For the first time, and this is true, 'nationalists' were able to engage in an Olympics which was hugely British in mood, tone and sporting achievement without a sense of disquiet at 'flag-waving Brits'. Likewise 'unionists' rallied behind Irish athletes under whatever flag they competed. And the British over there seem, after decades of unease, to have been given to permission to support those competitors from the neighbouring country wholeheartedly. Boxing, where Irish athletes were most successful, summed up the new friendship between both islands, with English fans supporting Irish boxers and vice versa.

Even John Joe Nevin and Luke Campbell's bantamweight final was conducted with expected vigour among rival fans but with none of the rancour which in previous decades would have accompanied the bout. And the Duchess of Cambridge was in the crowd to applaud Katie Taylor's triumph.

There are things to say - at some point - about the BBC's persistent secularist attitude to the obvious faith of so many of the world's athletes. There were so many visible gestures of belief and thanksgiving that the liberal media simply couldn't deal with them so ignored them - even when British boxer Anthony Joshua won gold in the ring and said Sunday was a holy day and he'd been blessed, the interviewer hurried swiftly on.

Of the few memorable moments in the closing ceremony, my favourite was the holographic appearance of the inimitable Freddie Mercury. His luminous figure leading 80,000 people in vocal athletics 20 years after his untimely death cemented his status as a global icon of fun, talent, elan and radiant charisma.

In spite of everything there is something that a slightly paunchy Zoroastrian still has to say to the bright youth of every generation: and since facial hair is back thanks to Bradley Wiggins, what better time to see Freddie's 'tache on public view once more, too?

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