At a time when sports resonates in the media with bribery, scandals, big football transfers, and other big amounts of cash... It is critical to anchor ourselves in what sports are and should remain: a source of ecumenism, an ode to personal achievements and limits that are pushed always further by the human body and brain.
My older son is now almost six and as part of his school curriculum, he is exploring the origin of sports. What a better age and place to do so? He was only three when the Olympics hit London. Our town. Our sports. But he still has crystal clear images in his brain of that event, conscious that he took part in something unique, and that we expect to relive sooner rather than later, maybe in September with the Rugby World Cup.
London 2012 took place almost 3 years ago, and next summer the flame will ignite Brazil, and yet I cannot avoid watching these Olympic highlights without being moved to the tears. So here are my memories of a summer not so long ago...
Flashback on a backlash.
Flashback. I have a vivid memory of the exact moment. July 6, 2005. I am in a car and I cannot think of a better birthday present than hearing the IOC confirm that Paris would host the Games that it had been campaigning so hard for. The French capital, as much as the rest of the Hexagon, had dreamt of these 2012 Olympics which would put sports at the heart of the City Of Lights. Imagine that, athletes competing on the Champs de Mars with the Eiffel Tower as a backdrop… The radio is crackling. Singapore is far away. And then, the verdict. Paris did not manage to fully convince the committee and it's Chiswick running hero, Sebastian Coe, who bags yet another victory. Paris is bitter, London exhilarated. The city will host its third Olympic games. Unfortunately the joy would not last as the following day a terror attack tears apart London with a series of bombing. What if Paris had won?
A few months later, a career opportunity leads me to cross the Channel. As Paul Feval once wrote it, « if the Games are not coming to me, I will be coming to the Games ». Fast forward seven years, and here we are. System failure after system failure, the District Line has been renovated. East London has found a new dynamism with the influx of investments made to the Olympic Park. The Londoners have volunteered en mass. And finally the streets started to be populated with new styles. Forget the buttoned-up suits from the City, the Shoreditch hipsters or Camden's goths. For a full fortnight the trendiest outfit was track suits… designed by Stella McCartney, but still.
At the heart of the games
Some had fled the city for the Cotswolds - no appetite for them to share the city with a million of plebeian visitors. Personally, this was purely unconceivable. My parents had told me so many stories about the 1968 winter games in my home town of Grenoble, stories about Jean-Claude Killy or Marielle Goitschel, stories of how they were moved to the tears when they heard on loudspeakers the heart beat of the last flame bearer walking up the stairs to light up the cauldron. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. I wanted to live on that very same rhythm. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. I wanted to embrace fully the promise of the games, and today I am sharing some of these heart beats with my sons (and you at the same time) with the ambition that one day we may have the joy to resonate in unison. Bam-bam, bam-bam, bam-bam. Here is my recollection of the games, an open-hearted memory if you wish.
Olympics are memorable. We all have in a corner of our mind a moment or an image from one of these competitions. For instance, I clearly remember being stunned by French Judo hero and flag bearer David Douillet's pragmatism when he declared to journalists before the Sydney games that his games would be over on day #1 and that he was hoping to carry another gold medal on that opening day. Funny enough my first real life encounter with Olympians was on the very first morning of the games where I was to grasp the depth of this declaration. Bright and early, I had gone to the ExCel Arena, only a few hours after Her Majesty the Queen jumped in a parachute over London with James Bond by her side. My agenda was to watch a few judokas fight for glory on tatamis… Or, as my son best describes it, two people in pyjamas pushing each other.
Judo: hard sport, hard facts.
Imagine that a second: you step into the arena, bow to the referee and to your opponent who in a jiffy grabs your kimono and throws you to the ground. 4 seconds, and the Games are over. Literally swept under your feet. You have not even have taken part in the opening ceremony the night before because you wanted to be fully fit for your big day. I let you reflect on the distress that the competitors face in such a moment. "What matters is to take part" may be hard to swallow at that very moment. I was touched by the abyss that the athletes were facing, and even today I remember word for word what Team GB Euan Burton uncompromisingly declared after being beaten: "I cannot think of anything positive right now. I have the feeling to have failed myself. I failed my coaches and everyone with whom I trained. I failed my mom, my dad, my brother. I worked very hard for a quarter of a century to reach that point, so no, I don't think of anything positive to take away." All is said.
Just like the Parisians dreamt their games, the London Olympic committee had managed to present the competitions in that jewel box that London can be. As a sneak peek to what the Brazilian games may be in 2016, the Horseguard Parade square got enhanced with a gigantic sandbox for the Beach volleyball tournament. In spite of occasional showers, St James Park had never looked more like a seaside resort where a colourful crowd could cheer and dance on the instructions of a passionate commentator. This is also that the Modern Games.
It's coming home.
England is home to football. But if beach volleyball carries along the scents of Copacabana and its coconut trees, the Beautiful Game still smells nowadays like outdated sexism and machismo. I was therefore delighted to see Wembley, the temple of this local religion, filled with 80.000 enthusiasts cheering the sporting performances of the women football teams. That was a victory in itself.
But it was topped by the privileged opportunity to stay in the stadium long after the last kick and to see the athletes walk around this mythic location with their medals around the neck. As the stewards were pulling down the nets and the spectators were exiting the arena, the US players walked the pitch one more time, to make the moment last just a little more. Tobin Heath, the pious, stood still, her arms outstretched, her eyes closed, as if she wanted to absorb every vibration.
La Marseillaise as a finale.
And since I speak about unforgettable moments, how could I skip the performance by the Experts? The French handball team, who had failed during the preceding European championships, were not ready to give up on their Olympic title. I had the honour to watch the final from the same stand as the players' family and other members of the French delegation. It was extremely moving to see their wives in tears as their husband were reaching the highest step of the podium… You could think that this is strange as if anyone should be used to victories and celebrations it would be them: this handball team has indeed been nick-named The Experts following their surgical double world champion titles, two European championships and two Olympic gold medals in just 6 years… This proves that one never really gets accustomed to glory. And to support my point even further, I witnessed this surreal scene when Renaud Lavillenie, himself Olympic champion of Pole Vaulting since the previous night, asking Jérôme Fernandez, the team skipper, for his autograph. Just like any other spectator... except that he received a little comment in return: « now it's your turn to get a second one! » (note: Renaud Lavillenie has since broken the world record a few times and is obviously tipped to fulfil that prophecy in Rio).
As a French in London, my emotions reached their paramount on that last night of the Olympic fortnight. As I wrote it already on this blog, you may question sometimes your attachment to your home country, especially if like me you consider yourself as a citizen of the world, a privileged migrant. On that night the answer was unequivocal and can be checked with this little test: can you listen to this Marseillaise, sung by a whole stadium, without having a shiver in your back? I can't! This epidermal reaction is worth any pledge of allegiance:
In the end, I would say that during these Games, London has never been as welcoming and smiling. I was proud of MY town, of MY countries... I was proud to have been one of the many heart beats.