You know that feeling when a party’s still going strong but you’re contemplating sloping off while things are still on a high? That was London 2012 for me. I couldn’t get too enthused ahead of part two of the proceedings – the Paralympics. I even suggested on these pages that maybe it should have been held before the Olympics.
Yet while the start coincided with a family holiday and it took me a while to be hooked this time, I’m glad I stuck around. And as the tongue-in-cheek Channel 4 advert said, ‘Thanks for the warm-up’. For the final fortnight provided a perfect end to a superb summer of sport. At a time when the sun seemed reticent to show across the UK, we still had something special to savour.
After the great job the BBC did at the Olympics, part two of London 2012 appeared a thankless task for Channel Four, and wall-to-wall, largely uninspired advertising didn’t help. But the production team rose to the challenge and delivered in style, not least after the clever behind-the-scenes poaching of BBC leading light Clare Balding and several others.
For all of his enthusiasm, Ade Adepitan struggled at first but improved by the day, in what must have been a baptism of fire for the former wheelchair basketball star. His pure eagerness alone got him through, but by the end he was every bit the professional presenter. That can be said for many of the team around the ever-earnest but always impassioned Balding, not least Iwan Thomas, a natural as a studio summariser. And fair play to anyone who in the heat of the moment says ‘bollocks’ on air when he quite clearly means ‘balance.’ What was going through his mind at the time I really don’t know, but it showed a human quality that illustrated so well an altogether real televisual success.
An honorary mention for Danny Crates too, just one of the many co-commentators and summarisers who helped bring the Games’ atmosphere into our living rooms, his often-hyperbolic excitement perfectly conveying all that was unfolding before him.
And then there was Aussie comic Adam Hills and his late night sofa buddies Alex Brooker and Josh Widdicombe, proving on a nightly basis that disability and comedy can work. It wasn’t just about laughs either, but a fitting celebration of the day’s action that proved educational too, not least the off-beat ‘is it ok?’ section. Why, the show even helped give tax-loophole lover Jimmy Carr a chance to part-redeem himself after a tricky PR summer – JC just one of the many celebs who found themselves in awe as they visited the Olympic Village and saw for themselves the sporting wonders on offer.
After a few days, I got beyond that difficult stage of spotting the disabilities ahead of each race. It became far more than that, and in the best moments this was first and foremost a celebration of great sport, national and international identity, inclusivity and comradeship. The fact that there were so many great – and often very touching – stories behind the athletes’ bids to even get there in the first place, made that all the more awesome.
I’ve mentioned this before, but when I think of cameraderie I recall Trigger’s great line on Only Fools And Horses, wondering if that was the name of that Italian bloke who used to play five-a-side with Del Boy and co. Well, there was certainly plenty on show at the Paralympics, and it certainly wasn’t all just about Team GB posturing.
While the crowds certainly upped the decibel rate when it came to the appearance of our competitors in the Olympic Stadium, the Aquatic Centre, Velodrome and elsewhere, there was plenty of noise for the other competing nations too. And not just for the superstars like South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius and Natalie Du Toit. Adam Hills’ mob got behind the four-strong Team Ghana, for instance, and there was plenty of love for every other country’s leading lights. And rightly so. The majority of these athletes had come a long way to get to London 2012 – metaphorically as well as geographically. And just to prove this was a human crowd, it wasn’t all blind adulation – there was the odd resounding boo for visiting Tory ministers too.
It’s difficult to pick out just a handful of highlights here, but from a sporting perspective I’ll start with just some of the many quality acts on the track that served to inspire us – GB’s Hannah Cockcroft, Jonnie Peacock and David Weir, South Africa’s Pistorius, and Ireland’s double sprint gold medallist Jason Smyth, who like Pistorius could well be on his way to the Olympics as well as the Paralympics in Brazil in four years.
Then I’ll throw in (get it?) characters like discus dynamo Aled Davies, cycling’s quadruple-gold medallist Sarah Storey, equestrian multiple golden girls Natasha Baker and Sophie Christiansen, and swimming’s Paralympic poster girl Ellie Simmonds.
Add to that a wealth of other archery, athletics, cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing and swimming gold medallists from these shores, and all the others who made this Paralympics such a huge success. As with the Olympics, it wasn’t just about the winners and medallists – there were so many other great highlights to choose from, not least those in the wheelchair tennis, rugby and fencing events.
On a personal front it was nice to see two of the Paralympians I interviewed in a spell writing for newspapers in Lancashire come good again, namely 100m sprint T36 silver medallist Graeme Ballard and 200m individual medley SM6 swimmer Natalie Jones, who claimed bronze in the pool. Both lovely people who have overcome so much, in their case despite cerebral palsy.
Jones went even further in my view with her post-race interview and podium celebrations in deference to GB team-mate Simmonds, providing a fitting example of the respect these fine athletes afford each other.
At one point, it seemed like all the technical details about running blades and the like would overshadow the Games, not least with Pistorius’ ill-timed outburst following his T44 200m final defeat to Brazil’s superb Inspector Gadget impersonator Alan Oliveira. But in the end the athletes’ achievements put that all in the shade.
IPC president and former Paralympian Sir Philip Craven got it spot on at the closing ceremony, his Boltonian accent a breath of fresh air during the official speeches as he told us, in something of a Spinal Tap tribute, he was “above the landscape, floating on cloud nine or sometimes 10 and 11” following the success of this year’s event.
That’s how it got some of us, not least proud Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who told the athletes and games-makers at the final day parade, “You routed the doubters and you scattered the gloomsters and for the first time in living memory you caused Tube train passengers to break into spontaneous conversation with their neighbours about subjects other than their trod-on toes.
“And, speaking as a spectator, you produced such paroxysms of tears and joy on the sofas of Britain that you probably not only inspired a generation, but helped to create one as well.”
I mentioned in my last Olympic piece how important it was now that we took on that legacy Seb Coe and his co-organisers trumpeted, to ensure this is no one-off party. That work has to continue at every level as we look to a bright future for Team GB and world sport.
But for now let’s just bask in the glory of these past few weeks and applaud a job well done, while thanking all those who made it happen. You did a great job, London. Now it’s over to you, Rio.