Envoys praise London’s ‘People’s Games’

Photo: Department for Culture Media and Sport

Foreign diplomats in the capital have applauded the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics and the British public for staging an “inspirational People’s Games” worthy of the “true Olympic spirit”.

In a post-Olympic poll conducted by Embassy magazine, London’s envoys were asked to rate the 2012 Games on a scale of one to 10. Using the Olympic diving scoring method – where the lowest and highest marks (some effusive diplomats gave London 11 out of 10) are eliminated – the capital achieved a stunning 9.5 out of 10 for its “extraordinary organisation”.

As one diplomat commented: “Everything worked so well – the transport, the games, the coverage, the celebration. Of course the athletes were superb – but the Brits as a whole really shone over the last couple of weeks. They should be so proud – I feel very privileged to be here during such an exciting time.”

Naturally diplomats’ highlights included Olympic achievements of their own athletes (too many to list individually) but Mo Farah’s double gold, Team GB’s triple gold on ‘Super Saturday’ and Usain Bolt’s ‘double triple’ gold were all listed as memorable moments.

But it wasn’t just the headline events they enjoyed. Diplomats from a range from countries listed “Olympic medal firsts” for Guatemala, Cyprus, Botswana, Montenegro and Grenada as highlights, with one pointing out a touching moment as Grenada’s first Gold medallist Kirani James swapped names with South Africa’s Oscar Pretorius ­– who later became the first man without legs to compete in an Olympic final.

Diplomats also love underdog victories, and the Aquatic Centre provided many of those, notably Lithuania’s 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte who looked stunned to win gold in the breaststroke final, as well as South Africa’s Chad Le Clos who beat the US’s mighty multi-medallist Michael Phelps (not to mention the joy of his father). But envoys do like a true champion too and Phelps receiving an award as the greatest Olympian ever was a highlight for some.

Many diplomats were impressed with the BBC’s “superb coverage”, especially the infectious enthusiasm of the commentators (Steve Cram received particular accolades). Communal viewing in pubs and on the big screens around London was also a real treat for many. One envoy, who had attended a couple of live events, said picnicking in Hyde Park and watching the thrilling sprint finish of the women’s triathlon with Londoners and visitors from around the world was her best experience of the Games.

For those not too bothered with sport, a highlight was the simple pleasure of emptier streets in the West End and an easier commute into work. The excellent networking opportunities provided by the Games made it a productive time for many trade attachés too.

Queen’s cameo
The “awesome” opening ceremony, as one Ambassador described it, was a highlight for everybody. Most heads of mission were lucky enough to experience it live and for many the sequence with the Queen and James Bond was the icing on the cake.

“Somehow, the Brits infused the ceremony with its eccentricity and irreverent humour. That must be a first,” commented an Ambassador. Her Majesty’s acting debut will no doubt be a topic of conversation at countless credentials ceremonies to come.

Another Ambassador was impressed with the ceremony’s bold originality and political commentary: “It was a thought-provoking social history of Britain.” But he added that it also invited political critique: “There was almost no mention of the British Empire or the upheaval that caused. We saw the Windrush arrive with immigrants to build the welfare state and multicultural Britain, but we didn’t see the Mayflower leave.”

Most thought the closing ceremony was good fun, but some were underwhelmed. “It wasn’t the grand finale I was expecting,” said one.

This was one of the few minor disappointments, which is why the capital did not score a perfect 10. The sight of empty seats at some venues combined with the fact that so many people were desperate to get tickets was the overwhelming gripe about the Games.

“The ticketing arrangements were a bit of a mess and the ticket prices were, for a start, generally high or very high – routinely costing £150 to £195 and much more,” commented one frustrated embassy worker.

Having said that, only 20 per cent of the respondents to the survey didn’t attend an Olympic event – possibly because they were fortunate enough to get allocations through their own Olympic committees. Just about every event had a diplomatic presence, even the lesser-known sports such as taekwondo, shooting and handball.

While the BBC was generally praised for its coverage, some diplomats felt it would have been more in the spirit of the Games to showcase a few more events where athletes of other countries excelled. “It would have been nice to hear a few more anthems,” said one.

But on the whole, diplomats without exception agreed that London “had delivered beyond expectations on its promises” to inspire a generation.

Winners and losers
As in every sport the Olympics had winners and losers. For many respondents to the survey, the biggest losers were the “naysayers who stayed away and didn’t embrace the Games”. Those families who couldn’t get tickets also lost out, pointed out one diplomat.

One cheekily suggested Paris was the biggest loser because it didn’t win the 2012 Games (not that the French are sore losers: they brought plenty of va va voom to the games with their 11 golds, 50 per cent more than their Beijing medal haul).

But on a more serious note, some noted that businesses in the West End and Central London did suffer a dip in sales as did some of the small local businesses near the Olympic Park. “In the short term, the Olympics did not provide the hoped-for boost to business in London or the UK,” noted one trade attaché.

The British taxpayer may also be a loser footing the bill of an expensive Games, added another. “The Games were a nice bash, but now is the hangover and back-to-reality phase.”

However some trade attachés did point out that while local business may initially be suffering, the tourism boost and the good PR from the feel-good factor may boost business and investment in future.

London (and Londoners who stuck it out to enjoy the Games) were the big winners in the Games, as one diplomat reflected: “London was branded as a dynamic, multicultural ‘world city.’”

Women athletes were also winners – since for the first time, every competing team had women athletes, including firsts from Saudi Arabia, whose female athletes received a resounding applause whenever they participated.

And on that note, overwhelmingly, diplomats thought fair-minded, enthusiastic British supporters and the army of volunteers were the biggest winners of all. “These were the friendly Games,” said one diplomat.

Diplomatic heroes
Diplomats and National Olympic Committees must take some credit for contributing to the Friendly Games. After all, embassies engaged with London’s many diaspora communities to turn up and give their athletes ‘home support’. The London Olympics also broke all records for the highest number of National Olympic Houses, which added a festive atmosphere from Holland House in the North, Swiss House on the South Bank, Jamaica to the East and Russia to the west, with plenty in between.

Stumbling across an Olympic House, with revelling supporters cheering on their athletes, waving flags, eating fabulous local food and watching their heroes on the big screen was one of the joys of the Games.

Every diplomat had their favourite house (usually their own country), but Jamaica House, Swiss House and Holland House won over the neutrals. Special mentions go to Denmark House and Russia Park, for having the most family-friendly Houses and to Africa House for the wonderful variety of food and music (which makes its premature closure even more disappointing).

And ordinary Londoners will remain eternally grateful to the Czechs who not only captivated the crowds in North London with great music and a big London bus called Booster doing push-ups, but generously offered spare tickets to Londoners.

But our diplomatic gold medal goes to Mike Guy of the Bahamas High Commission. Not only was he a volunteer at the Aquatics Centre but, if you looked carefully, you would have been able to spot him in the opening ceremony as a coal-smeared industrial worker. Watch this space for Mike’s story of the Games.

Abiding memories
Few can compete with Mike’s memories, but those who joined in the Games all have their own moments to savour. For some it was the spine-tingling roar of the crowd as GB athletes were introduced; for others it was the sound of a stadium singing the national anthem. For many it was the unexpected cultural surprises around each corner, such as the nightly light show on the Houses of Parliament, which one diplomat described as “breathtaking”. For one diplomat, it was seeing the Olympic flame pass right down his street and then end up igniting the beautiful petals of the Olympic cauldron.

But for most it was simply the overall Olympic atmosphere that they savoured, as one diplomat said: “It was a great party – somehow life will seem rather boring now.”

But don’t despair, the party isn’t over just yet. The Paralympics promises to enter the history books as the first sell-out and hopefully this time everybody who wants them will be able to get tickets so that the Capital can score a perfect Paralympic 10.