“I wonder how the owner of this wall feels”
Photograph by Matthew Reeve
I watched the opening ceremony from the roof of a friend’s narrowboat, near King’s Cross, northwest of the Olympic Park. Boat dwellers have had a rough time under the Olympic regime; many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the waterways around the Park, displaced because they supposedly presented a security risk. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, a festival of sanctioned misrule, was the first hint that the games were going to be difficult to read politically. One reading was that Boyle’s ceremony was subversive, smuggling in references to the National Health Service and multiculturalism in order to thumb its nose at the coalition government. (A conservative MP concurred in his way, tweeting that it was “leftie multicultural crap.”) Meanwhile Jenny Diski suggested the ceremony was welfare state melancholia, “a wishful tale of things long gone. It was love as sentiment, a nostalgic cry for what has been lost.”
Though I wanted the assurance of disdain, or the simple fervor of sports fandom, I was never sure how I felt about the Olympics. When the ticket lottery was announced last year, I applied for tickets to everything from track cycling to synchronized swimming to fencing. I didn’t get any. After that, I planned to go to Box Hill in Surrey to watch the bicycle road race, but then the organizers announced that they’d decided to charge spectators to stand there, so I stayed home instead. Criticism of the hundreds of empty seats led to the organizing committee chairman to announce that corporate tickets would be reclaimed and resold to the public. But the ticketing site was fickle and almost impossible to navigate, and I didn’t get any of the reissued tickets either.
The message, as I received it, was clear: the Olympics were to be enjoyed, from afar. A sign attached to the fence of Haggerston Park, another local green space appropriated by the Games organizers, warned people to keep away:
You cannot see the Olympic Opening Ceremony from Hackney Marshes
There are no facilities or lighting on the Marshes at night
The best place to watch the ceremony is on television or a big screen
Perhaps watching the Games at home was the best way to experience their Disneyland of nonthreatening passion, a carefully guarded environment in which nothing unusual or unexpected was allowed to occur. The predictability of this world bled into the events themselves: we felt cheated when athletes didn’t conform to the narrative that had long been established for them. When eight badminton players were disqualified from the women’s doubles competition for not making their “best efforts to win” what was supposedly appalling was not that they’d threatened the honor of badminton but rather that the rules of a carefully calibrated world had been violated by external forces. Many of the events themselves require the construction of artificial landscapes that mimic the real world while paralyzing it. The Arcadian canoeing river, with its concretized white water pumped in an endless loop, was an assault to Heraclitus. Here was a river that remained the same no matter how many times you stepped into it.