It seems a good bet that sport in 2012 will go down in history as one of those magical “Oh, you had to be there” moments, and with fair reason too. The memories are already being condensed down into a series of memes, relayed by future generations on TV set to a background of suitably emotional music, or in airy recollections on warm August nights in the garden after a few glasses of wine: the Mo-bot, didn’t it seem to be sunny every day?, Jessica Ennis, Clare Balding with that South African swimmer and his Dad, Boris dancing to the Spice Girls. I think members of my generation have similar memories of Euro 96, except we were probably all a lot happier at the end of the Olympics and Jimmy Hill didn’t rock up in a St. George’s cross bow-tie.
It barely seems possible, but cast your mind back to before July and all was not as rosey as it is remebered now. It is a universally acknowledged truth that in the run-up to a Big Event, something will go a bit awry and the media will be accused of the most grotesque and unpatriotic cynicism for having the gall to report it. What’s that? There seems to be a serious problem with racism amongst crowds at games in Poland and Ukraine ahead of Euro 2012? SHUT UP MEDIA! We want to enjoy the tournament without thinking about any of that stuff. Don’t you know sports and politics don’t mix!
So it was in the build up the Olympics that the dour-faced killjoys in the papers and on TV were reporting minor problems such as the firm given the security contract for the event had spectacularly failed to keep up its end of the bargain and 3500 British troops would be required to fill the gap instead. Or the not-at-all-terrifying-and-ever-so-slightly-distopian news that surface to air missiles were being installed on the roofs of London tower blocks, seemingly without taking the going to the trouble of consulting the residents first.
It was all going a bit Children of Men and this is before you remember that less than 12 months earlier these parts of London had seen the worst civil unrest since the 1980s, and the city’s supposedly loveable cartoonish mayor was left stammering out an explanation as to why he’d deemed the scenes of burning buildings, cars and looting to be not reason enough to cut short his holiday and return home to do some mayoring.
Add in a little more political context and this summer of sport was beginning to look dangerously like an elitist irrelevance. Just as dewy-eyed sporting historians like to set Botham’s Ashes against a backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain and the Brixton riots of 1981, the 2012 Olympics had its very own juxtaposition between sporting perfection and economic austerity: a national ‘day of action’ (or ‘strike’, as they’re otherwise known) over public sector pensions the previous November, local authorities facing a funding squeeze and announcing another round of job losses in February, a sovereign debt crisis threatening to engulf the smaller Eurozone states before turning its attention to the union’s more senior members. How this is remembered in relation to sport in 2012 depends much upon how these crises, all unresolved, play out. They could be tapped into shape and fitted up to the play the villain in a well-meaing ‘sport conquers all’ narrative, or all context may be stripped away, deemed to detract too much from all the lovely sport. (I don’t mean to be cynical (alright, maybe just a bit), I just think context is important sometimes.)
[and I almost forgot about the Queen’s Jubille. Which, in retrospect, looks curiously like, just as the athletes were in the final stages of their preperation, the British public was getting in some bloody good flag-waving practice before the main event. “The Olympics without any of the fun bits”, an uncharitable person might say.]
Back into the sporting arena and another reminder that all optimism pre-July was a futile pursuit came in the form of Euro 2012. The now traditional routine of getting excited, getting together and getting the drinks in seemed just that little bit more forced this time round and England were as flat as the beer in a can of Carlsberg the morning after. There were some good moments but England once again flattered to deceive before being out-played by Italy in the quarter-final and yet, almost ingenuously, still contriving to manufacture the customary exit on penalty kicks.
In retrospect, the national’s number one sport cast a lovely contrast for the Olympics to show itself off against. Football had a year dogged by racism on the pitch and in the stands, fans coming to the defence of a player convicted of rape, interminable arguments over what constituted a red card these days and, in the end, the Premier League and the European Cup wound up being won by the teams with the richest owners. (Allbeit both with surprisingly exciting denouements.) Who’d have thought it?
The Olympics would have had to have been pretty fucking terrible and depraved to look bad in comparison, and perhaps this is why the event took off in quite the way it did. Instead of stern-faced post-match press conference from managers attempting to put the psychological voodoo on their opponents, or the earnest millionaire delivering flat platitudes after scoring a goal, we had actual genuine, real-life enthusiasm, passion, excitement, humbleness, all the things that football seems to be moving further and further away from these days.
In the end, quite why football happened to look so bad over the summer months is probably a combination of a number of factors rather than just one, but it was nice to see people who work hard for comparatively very little recognition end up getting so much of the spotlight for a while. From the velodrome to the track to the lakey-thing where they did the sailing, the Olympics was pulling apart that old lie that you have to be a bit of a dick in order to be successful in today’s world. It was almost enough to make you believe all the stuff about role models and sporting legacy.
Sport isn’t the great healer that some would have you believe it is, though. Seeing Mo Farah win his second gold medal is probably scant comfort if you’ve been made redundant or are having the benefits you rely on cut. And, as such it should be put in its proper context. Sport in 2012 was as sport always has been – a form of escapism, a milieu of excitement, heartbreak and other emotions if you’re willing to invest enough into it.
But let’s stop beating around the bush, for once everything went pretty well. Alright, very well. If you like you can think about the Olympics and bookend them with Bradley Wiggins’s Tour de France win and Andy Murray’s triumph at the US Open and you’ve got rather a magnificent set of events. 2012 was a year which, for whatever reason, everything seemed to come together. If you could look past the giant McDonalds and the various politicians keen to get a slice of the feel-good pie and Paul McCartney singing along to his own song in the velodrome, it was all actually rather good.