Thursday, 24 January 2013 13:36

London Calling: Olympicmania

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London 2012 had been a long time coming but when it finally did, even the weather which had until then been literally a dampener (un(s)reasonably wet and cold) miraculously turned dry, sunny and warm - into a prolonged golden summer! Earlier in the year the country had celebrated the Queen`s Diamond Jubilee, with a series of public events. These gave Britons of all colours, ethnicities and backgrounds an opportunity to come together and show affection, respect and admiration for their long serving monarch, who is also of course Head of the Commonwealth. That she was still going strong at the age of 86, supported by her husband, 91 and in ailing health, was something to cherish. This feelgood mood deepened as the Olympic flame arrived, and once again people from every nook and corner of the land came out cheerfully in their thousands as the torch was carried around by not just celebrities but also ordinary folk who had been especially selected for their charitable work or other contribution to public life.

Then the day was suddenly upon us, and so began this year`s run of the Olympics and Paralympics, stretching from late July to early September. The opening ceremony was so spectacular, so colourful, so packed with history, geography, culture and technical wizardry (including footage of the Queen with the fictional James Bond) that it took our breath away. It was a many splendored mosaic of Britishness, past and present. We were immediately drawn into the spirit of the games, and became even more animated as things moved on.

Once the real business began, we were just propelled along, day after day, with one event following closely upon another. The Olympics became our daily conversation point - with friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, callers. As a nation, we even broke our renowned traditional reserve to talk about the games with perfect strangers in trains, theatres, supermarkets and other places. Those of us who had managed to get tickets for some of the events spoke of their experiences in glowing terms. There was warm praise for all the organisation and facilities, and universal admiration for the thousands of volunteers, the `gamesmakers`, who made their outing so memorable. We cheered British participants and winners, naturally, but also those from other countries. In particular, the ex-Kenyans among us kept our eyes open and ears tuned in for sight or mention of any Kenyan or other East African in whatever sport or field. This year`s Olympics was on our home ground and so the timing suited us perfectly – no question of having to sit up until late hours into the night or at other awkward times to watch the games live on TV because of time difference, as had happened many times in the past.

Talking of past games, the one to stand out was the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That was the first time Kenyan athletes made their collective mark on the international sporting scene. We could never forget watching coverage of those games on grainy black and white TV back in Nairobi. Kipchoge Keino, Naftali Temu and Amos Biwott – those pioneering gold medallists became our instant heroes. In western media, their achievement was put down to Mexico City being over 7,000 feet above sea level, comparable to the Kenyans` high altitude environment and training grounds. We reserved judgment on that; soon however Kenyan runners were to become synonymous with speed in any kind of terrain. The Mexico games also struck a chord with us for another reason: the spectacle of those two brave American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the Black Power salute on the medals podium in support of their civil rights movement then at its peak.

Looking back, it can scarcely be denied that Kenya`s rise as an Olympic nation has been an entirely post-colonial phenomenon. In fact the very first time Kenya won an Olympic medal (a bronze) was at the 1964 Tokyo games - by Wilson Kiprugut, who was to repeat the feat at the 1968 games with an upgraded silver for the men`s 800m race! Kenya`s standing in international sport generally, then, is a true reflection and measure of the country`s development and advancement in the six decades since independence.

So what are the highlights of London 2012? There was a huge variety of sports on offer, ranging from archery and athletics to weightlifting and wrestling, with many different and nuanced forms of cycling, swimming and gymnastics in between, quite apart from the all-time favourites such as the various men`s and women`s field races. Women`s boxing, however, was new. To many of us for whom boxing is otherwise anathema, this was doubly so, and yet we were won over by their grace and finesse. Women`s football also brought them into a male-dominated public consciousness. Even so, while women have been competing in the Olympics since 1900, beginning at a modest level, London 2012 was the first for every participating country`s contingent to include them on an equal footing with the men!

Above all, it was the Paralympics that had a huge impact on popular perceptions about disabled people. They were seen running, hitting the ball, cycling, swimming, sailing, shooting – as hard and ably as their full-bodied counterparts – and taking part in many other physically challenging and mentally demanding sports, ranging from wheelchair basketball to volleyball, fencing and even the equestrian! Their dexterity, determination, stamina, and sheer power drew the crowds to their feet with roars of applause. The attendance records for the Paralympics surpassed the organisers` estimates many times over. The feedback from those who went there showed how much they enjoyed it. After the Paralympics, disability is no longer being thought in terms of dis-ability but rather of another form of ability. The concept of disability is thus undergoing a reappraisal. The visibility factor of the disabled is beginning to dispel many misconceptions about their intellectual capacity, employability, social skills and other human qualities. This can only help in their continuing fight against disability discrimination.

Another lesson that London 2012 taught us was what human endeavour means in sporting achievement: persistence, doggedness, sacrifice, coping with adversity and disappointment. What we learnt was that those who reach top levels of their particular sport tend to be quite articulate, principled, self-assured and modest individuals. In interviews, discussion programmes other public appearances they are well able to express and explain what it all means to them, how they train and the challenges, professional and personal, they face and overcome. They are a generic role-model for the young, in terms of the Olympian motto of friendly competition and mutual respect for each other. London 2012 thus truly lived up to its logo of ‘Inspire a generation’!

But of course, we will remember these Olympics and Paralympics by certain names: Mo(hamed) Farah; Usain Bolt; Barry Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Nicola Adams, Oscar Pistorius, Michael Phelps, Tirunesh Dibaba and many more besides. The first week of the Olympics was dominated by cycling, swimming, diving and other both indoor and outdoor events. The athletics came during the second week; that is when things became really exciting. In the men`s marathon, on the last day, we were rooting for one or other of the two Kenyans in the lead (Kirui and Wilson Kiprotich) but it was the latter`s namesake, Stephen Kiprotich, representing Uganda, who sneaked to victory by a mere 26 second lead over Kirui! In the same way, for the women`s marathon, we were willing one of the two leading Kenyans, Keitany or Jeptoo, to reach the end first, but again it was another neighbouring country, Ethiopia, who beat them to it. It was the same story in the women`s 5000m. On the men`s front too, the final results for Kenyan participants were a little disappointing, though in the men`s 5000m and 10,000m, with Britain`s Mo Farah at the top, the Kenyan runners coming third and fifth respectively was not bad! But David Rudisha`s magnificent finish in the men`s 800m will surely, as Lord Coe himself observed, go down in history as one of the best. In post-game coverage, Rudisha spoke fondly of his father having been one of the silver medallists in the men`s 4x400m relay at the 1968 Mexico Olympics!

There was much discussion about the final medals tally and ranking of course. For much of the time, China and the US were running neck and neck but in the end the US came top with a total of 104 medals. For Britain to finish third overall, with a better than expected total of 65, to China`s 88 as second was, as host nation, most satisfying. Kenya, with a total of 11 and ranking 28, did not do badly, though it had done better at the 2008 Beijing Games with a total of 14. In the Paralympics, however, China surpassed all other nations to stand at the top of the table with an impressive total of 231, while Britain again came a respectable third and the US (with a total of 98) sixth. Kenya`s 2-2-2 total of 6 was a respectable score.

From a domestic British perspective, London 2012 was to bring about a most dramatic socio-cultural transformation, over and above the changed profile of women and disabled athletes in the nation`s image. The previous year`s riots (see AwaaZ, Issue 3/2011, ‘London`s Burning’) were already a distant memory. These games were to herald the unfolding of a new aura of togetherness and commonality across all levels of the population. In particular, Britain`s ethnic minorities, whether first generation migrants or those with more settled roots, no longer felt awkward, shy or embarrassed to be part of the UK plc. The most visible representation of this was Mo Farah enthusiastically draping the British flag for all the world to see. The non-indigenous Brits were seen proudly embracing the symbols of the flag and the national anthem as a matter of course, as of right and entitlement. There was no self-consciousness, no feeling of otherness; and the nation at large for its part received them with open arms. For too long the Union Jack had become an embarrassing emblem of the extremist, xenophobic right-wing parties which had appropriated it as their exclusive preserve. It has now been reclaimed as an all-encompassing symbol of unity. This paradigm shift in national attitudes is rightly attributable to the success of the games.

Also for Britons, this year`s sporting success story did not begin or end with the Olympics and the Paralympics. In the lead up to London 2012, Bradley Wiggins had won the 2012 Tour de France, the first British person to do so in its entire history. Then at the Olympics, he got the gold for the cycling road time trial. Next it was Andy Murray`s turn: after his disappointing performance earlier in the year at Wimbledon, where he had lost to Roger Federer in the men`s single championship, Murray managed to reverse the defeat by winning the Olympic singles tennis gold medal against Federer in a thrilling finish! And more success was to follow for Murray: he won the 2012 US Open in New York, his first much coveted grand slam win, thus putting him firmly in the world`s elite group of leading male tennis players. And to top it all, Britain had one more cause to rejoice, with Europe`s Ryder Cup golf victory against the US, summed up in a typical headline as ‘after a sporting summer that has defied belief, the final miracle came to pass’!

So much for our year of glory and glamour. The euphoria will fade in time, as London 2012 becomes part of the nation`s historical folklore. We can never, however, think of the Olympics without Kenya in the frame. Surely as a significant player on the Olympian field, there must be people who dream of Kenya hosting the games at some time? As it happens, no less than the Prime Minister Raila Odinga did, on a visit to London, boldly declare that Kenya would bid for the 2024 games! Was he serious or did his enthusiasm get the better of him? In a frank and measured piece on the BBC website updated as of 10.10.2012, Chris Tsuma, a sports journalist and lecturer at Nairobi`s US International University, debunked the whole notion of such an overly ambitious project on various grounds, not least in terms of the requirements of infrastructure, sponsorship deals, facilities, transport, cost, security, general capacity and other resources. But notwithstanding his perfectly sound critique, surely a Nairobi or Mombasa Olympics cannot be ruled out for ever? Maybe in the second half of the 21st century? Most of us, alas, will not be here to witness it!

Ramnik (better known as RKD) Shah practiced as an advocate in Nairobi for 10 years from 1964, and was Vice-Chairman of the Law Society of Kenya for 1973/74. After settling in Britain, he practiced as a Solicitor there for 30 years from 1975 and following retirement continues to write as a critic and commentator in various forums and as a member of the editorial board of the London-based Journal of Immigration Asylum and Nationality Law.
© 2012 Ramnik Shah


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