Extinguishing the Flame

by Corinne Purtill

Hello! This column returns, after a lengthy and unexplained absence occasioned only by vacation and laziness. We crossed the Atlantic, crossed the country and are now back home in London, a city transformed – at least temporarily.

London said goodbye this week to the Paralympic Games – an event that got way more play and publicity here than in the US, I gather – and to what has been an unbelievably festive and friendly five weeks in this city. We’ve discussed here before the exceptionally English response to the distressing prospect of hosting an Olympics. Then the Opening Ceremonies happened. I don’t know what the response to the ceremony was outside the UK, but the British loved it. They looked at the dancing peasants and the giant Voldemort and the tribute to socialized medicine and they said Yes. That is so us. And from then on everybody loved the Olympics and no one could remember ever having said anything different.  

The traffic that the moaners said would keep us trapped in our homes never materialized; it even stopped raining. Organizers fixed the glitches that made it so hard for UK residents to buy tickets, and people snapped up seats to every event that would have them. The week before the Opening Ceremony it wasn’t cool to talk about the Olympics; once they started, I hardly knew anyone who didn’t want to go.

We did not get tickets for any Olympic event, despite my strenuous and unsuccessful efforts to get my husband a seat for the men’s hammer final. (We did attend the Netherlands Olympic Committee’s official party, and that was so incredible I don’t have words to describe it beyond orange, tall, Heineken. All I can say is that a Dutch pop star flown in for the event sang a cover of the top summer single in Holland, and it is a rap about riding a bicycle, which is exactly what I would imagine the top single in Holland at any given time to be.) I could not believe what an incredibly hot ticket hammer throwing was until we watched the event on TV (televised Olympics in the UK: so much better!) and I understood that of the 80,000 people in the sold-out stadium that night, 12 of them were there for the hammers, and 79,988 of them for men’s 100 meter final happening across the track.

Instead we bought tickets to the second most-anticipated 100 meters of the Games, featuring Oscar Pistorius – aka the Blade Runner.

I love Oscar Pistorius. He is as fast as anyone with no legs has ever been, which is awesome. I was already psyched and then I read this New York Times profile that explains that Oscar Pistorius is both inspiring and also a little bit insane, and I love that. This is not the same thing as being a legitimate sports fan. I could not name any of his competitors or other events planned that night. I arrived at the Stadium Thursday night feeling like a tourist instead of a true believer.

From the dispassionate, completely objective perspective of a journalist, OMG YOU GUYS THE PARALYMPICS WAS AWESOME!!! The Olympic Stadium is beautiful. Anish Kapoor’s Orbit, the tower that in photos looks like a freak Erector Set accident gone awry, glows blood-red at night like a brilliant living thing. The event staff – all volunteers – were ridiculously nice.

A word about the red-and-purple uniformed army of volunteer “Games Makers” scattered across London for the last month: I do not know what kind of national talent search unearthed this many English people who are both helpful and without any apparent social phobias. They have been so nice, not just at the venues but all over the city. Olympic volunteers going to and from work have helped me carry the stroller up the stairs in the Tube, given directions, and chatted at bus stops. Red-and-purple-shirt people, thank you for your time, your effort and for making London a kinder and less awkward place this summer.

The stadium was full. As many people came to see the Paralympians that night as came to see Usain Bolt defend his 100 title. It was an electric atmosphere. We saw the blind runner Mahmoud Khaldi’s exuberant victory lap after winning a gold for Tunisia in the 400 meters. We saw the final races of decorated blind runner Assia El Hannouni of France, who also won Most Enthusiastic On-Podium National Anthem Performance for her belting of “La Marseillaise.” Watching an athlete represent their country at the highest level of their sport is unbelievably exciting. I now almost understand Justin’s religious commitment to the World Cups of anything. Almost.

Even knowing this, even after seeing the unexpected fervor with which Britons eventually embraced the Games, I was unprepared for the energy of a full stadium screaming on a home team. Never have I heard the sound a stadium makes when united in support of a team; never have I felt that energy that seems to propel an athlete forward by the force of its will.

When Hannah Cockroft crushed her opponents in the wheelchair race for athletes with cerebral palsy, the crowd went crazy. When wheelchair racer David Weir won his third gold medal in the 800, they screamed like mad. And when a 19-year-old Jonnie Peacock soared down the straightaway and beat – yes – Oscar Pistorius, it was a sound like nothing I’d ever heard. I get why sports writing (this included) so often sounds clichéd and why it soars when a writer strikes the right note. It is a magical thing to experience.

There is a book my daughter likes called “Oscar’s Rotten Birthday.” Oscar the Grouch is mad because everyone on Sesame Street is planning him a birthday party and he hates birthdays. But then it turns out to be better than any birthday party he can imagine – mud cake, stinkweed flowers, broken toys for presents – and by the end the only thing Oscar has to be grouchy about is that it won’t be his birthday again for a year.

That’s kind of what happened to the English and the Olympics. They moaned and complained because it’s the only thing they know how to do when faced with something new – that, and retreat into awkwardness – and then it turned out to be more exciting and inspiring than they believed it could be. I love them for agreeing, as a nation, to let themselves enjoy it just this once, even if now – bless them – they are a little embarrassed about having gotten so carried away. I will not forget the London I saw this summer, even as the trash can lid slams back down.

 

“Well, that was fun,” the Evening Standard’s editorial pages said yesterday. “Now can we have our city back?” 

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