Suffering Olympic Fever

by Corinne Purtill

I was on a bus in north London last summer when a lady got on, took the seat behind me and immediately began complaining to her seatmate about the driver of her last bus. Then they started complaining about our bus driver, then about the new bus routes, and then about traffic in general.

“And just wait ‘til the Olympics!” one woman said to her companion.

“The Olympics?!” the woman said, as shocked to hear the Olympics were happening as I was to learn that anyone didn’t know that. “In this country??”

I’ve thought about that woman every time I hear someone in London complain about the Olympics, which happens every time I hear someone in London talk about the Olympics. If you want to understand the mood in the city on the eve of the Games then read this report from last week’s New York Times. It perfectly captures the bah-humbug, bloody-hell, couldn’t-be-bothered attitude that marks the city’s response. Never mind the energetic pronouncements of its public officials, particularly the outspoken and ambitious Mayor Boris Johnson. The word on the street – and on the Tube platform, the bus, and anywhere else more than two Londoners have gathered and have already talked about the weather – is that hosting the Olympics here was a bloody stupid idea.

There’s the traffic. And the crowds. It’s expensive (£15 billion) and scary (the company tasked with providing security guards announced last week that – oops – there won’t be enough) and tickets are impossible to get. If Beijing’s goal in 2008 was to give the world a preview of the new Chinese century, London’s aim in 2012 is to grit its teeth and bear down until the whole thing ends. The Olympics are Thanksgiving, and the world is London’s in-laws.

This is a strange thing to see as an American. In the U.S., regardless of where the Games take place, the Olympics are a quadrennial explosion of nationalistic pride, unabashed boosterism and a flood of marketing tie-ins. All the ads are Olympic-themed. People suddenly care about swimming. Olympic fever in London is more like an actual fever, or at least a low-grade flu that everyone wishes would go away as soon as possible.

Tomorrow night, the Olympic torch is running past my house. They are closing off the street. There will be traffic. There will be crowds. I have heard all this in the last few days. But I also have a fond memory of getting up at 2 a.m. to watch the Olympic torch run through my hometown in 1996. There was no grousing, no whinging, just a bunch of people standing in the dark whooping wildly for a guy with a flaming stick. It’s called Olympic spirit, London. Stiff upper lip, now, and get on with it.