It’s official. Forget Lord Coe or Ken Livingstone. It was Craig, Sue and I who did it. According to members of the IOC, the enthusiasm of the British spectators at Athens 2004 was an important factor in their decision to award the 2012 games to London. Having family in Athens made a first ever trip to the Olympics irresistible. A beautiful city, near guaranteed sun, friendly accommodation with excellent food and plenty of British athletic interest made a winning combination.
We planned our stadium tickets around the best British medal hope. Yes, Paula Radcliffe.
By sheer good luck though, we also had tickets for evenings including the finals of the women’s 800m and 1500m.
As I’ve seen more live football than athletics, the good-natured and generous atmosphere at athletics meetings is always refreshing. Yes there was plenty of Greek passion on display (no doubt fanned by Greece’s success at the UEFA European football championship months earlier) and plenty of vocal national contingents, with the union flag-waving Brits the largest visiting group by some way. But while we were delighted to cheer for our national heroes, there was plenty of appreciation for outstanding performances, and always respect for national anthems. The only notable absentees were U.S. spectators, who perhaps felt Athens was a little too close to Baghdad for comfort.
The main difference between being there and watching athletics on television is an appreciation of the vulnerability of the athletes. At home it is easy to get the impression that the United States, Russia and China are vast impersonal medal-winning machines. Up close, you see each athlete as a human being, under immense pressure and totally alone. This contributes to the warmth and generosity with which every winner is applauded.
Another revelation was the pole vault. What has always seemed a faintly ridiculous sport viewed on TV is quite gripping in the stadium. The sheer size of the event and the binary nature of its outcome make for dramatic spectacle when compared to, say, the long jump, where from most seats it is impossible to tell a good jump from a poor one without recourse to the big screen.
But the undoubted highlight was the last night of athletics in the stadium. To witness two British golds in one evening was a privilege unlikely to be repeated for many years. Kelly Holmes, who had seemed surprised to win the 800m a few days earlier, was imperious in the 1,500m.
We had a good feeling as soon as the runners came out. Although every British fan was yelling Kelly’s name as loudly as they could, she took not the slightest notice, lost in her own intense world. Waving to the crowd was for later: right now she was totally focused.
She ran a perfect race, and it was a great moment when the leading runners entered the home straight: Holmes was right where she wanted to be, and the others knew they were powerless to stop her.
To cap the evening, the Men’s 4x100m relay team put in a marvellous team performance to edge out the Americans, who, man for man, were so much better.
The large British contingent sang the anthem (twice) so lustily that a friend watching on TV thought that the pre-recorded anthem featured a choir. No, we said, that was us. All that remained was to sing “Yanks in the relay, we beat the Yanks in the relay” (to the tune of Guantanamera) in the Metro on the way home, and then find a shop still open where we could buy a bottle of champagne to toast a fantastic night for British athletics. It doesn’t get much better than that.