I regretted agreeing to go from the start because I have less and less tolerance for crowds as I grow older, and I could just imagine the press of people. But my Dad carried the Olympic torch for the '80 Olympics in New York State. And I kept thinking that it was a thing, an event that I wanted my children to witness for good or for ill. And by ill I mean a constant stream of muttered anti-capitalist trash talk from their mother.
I have such a love-hate relationship with the Olympics. I mean, look, this human ideal of competing in peace and honoring physical achievement is so fantastic. And the great truth that I keep reminding my son. All these athletes are already champions, and they are champions not only because they have talent, but because they also work hard at it, day after day, and make sacrifices to be excellent. This is a truth about life, talent is not enough without work. And to see the Olympic teams is to see mostly virtuous humans.
And yet these excellent people are chiefly funneled by the Olympics into advertising fodder. The expenses paid to the International Olympic Committee and the cost overruns are insane. The demands of the IOC (six hundred air-conditioned limousines for their sole use during the London games) . . . the way that you HAD to have a VISA card to purchase tickets, the way that the tickets were insanely expensive and all the choice tranches went to corporate sponsors, the way that the remodeling of East London was done to maximize fascist crowd control measures, the huge portion of the tax money that goes to making private security firms rich, the privatization of the police and the evaporation of civil rights (at the complete discretion of private security forces, you can be excluded from the Olympics and there is no right of appeal or connection whatsoever to the courts), the passing of laws restricting what kind of t-shirts people can wear (those same private security forces can make you turning your Pepsi t-shirt inside out a condition of entry because Coke is a sponsor and Pepsi is not). In fact, on that last one, I heard that the reason they did not release the route of the torch through England until very shortly before it began not because they were worried about terrorism, but because the sponsors didn't want their competitors buying up billboards along the route.
But Saturday at 18:50 the Olympic torch was going to arrive in Cambridge at a big park and my son wanted to see it, so we started the extensive logistics analysis that must be undertaken before a parking place can be agreed upon, packed rain gear and resigned ourselves to standing in a field for three hours. I was curious to see the police presence and am happy to report that it wasn't that bad. There were a number of concrete and metal barriers places to control the crow but there wasn't a menacing police presence (I guess that would spoil the effect of the advertisements?)
We got there and started the great British crowd ritual of queuing: for drinks, for hot dogs, for the toilet, for some cherries. We stood in the thickening crowd, angled so that if we lifted the children, they could just glimpse the actual stage plus they would have a view of a screen. I was very proud of my son's reaction to the screen. "If I just see it on a screen it doesn't count." Thank you, Owain, I agree. But as the crowd pressed in and our view was completely obscured, Liberty dropped her Bunny into the mud and my husband and I felt an overwhelming need to just leave.
The offering on the main stage was this bland, peppy parade of young people who tried to whip the crowd into cheering by performing backflips. It did vary. They had a sort of reality show format where they would pit one side of the crowd against each other and keep score on huge COCA COLA or LLOYDS TSB logo'd screens. When we first walked in, the main stage had a group of children dancing a tribute to the Olympics. Accompanied by a drum orchestra, the children pretended to lift weights and play tennis. I had to look away. The kids were not that well rehearsed, but that was not what was disturbing. What disturbed me was that the look on their faces was just like the look I had seen in the North Korean propoganda festivals circa Kim Jong Il. An odd adolescent halfway house located between duty-bound and I-don't-give-a-fuck. The performers were to a person without soul, without truth.
And the athletes were not there and being lauded. This was an excuse to gather a crowd, it was an extensive advertisement. I found myself spontaneously asking people in lines with me why we were there. I didn't get a satisfactory answer. I felt like I was with a bunch of sheep. We decided to leave.
When a woman behind me said, "So you've decided to go?", I told her I felt like a participant in a North Korean propaganda campaign blended with a Coca cola advertisement. I let some outrage out and said, "Yes! We are going! While I still have some dignity!" - That was the best part of the evening for me.
But as we crossed the huge field to find the parking garage, there were only five minutes left to wait, Owain pleaded and we waivered and quickly in the distance we saw slightly above the crowd a flame, a small yellow flame. And the fact that that flame came from a flame that never went out was very impressive to my son, and the cheer that went up from the crowd was oddly heartwarming.
It reminded me of my favorite fake folk dancing story. One night at the Early Night Club (the monthly dance party for moms in Cambridge) at closing time the DJ put on a traditional Ceilidh. And the eight or so happy tipsy women in my part of the bar started hooking arms and passing our partners on to the next person. We didn't know what we were doing. We were fake folk dancing, because we were just making it up as we went along. But we were at the same time really folk dancing because we were enjoying each other and celebrating being together in this authentic, exuberant way. We were REALLY fake folk dancing.
And in that crowd tonight, despite the oppressive corporate presence, despite the three inches of mud, when the torch came through, there was an authentic whoop of excitement. Excitement that sounded like other parents like us who wanted to make this moment a real memory for our children and wanted to believe in what was good about the Olympics. It had the heart of the real fake folk dancing.
But the cheer was there and gone in seconds, but the corporate logos on the screens endured long after we trotted off home.