An abiding heart-warming snapshot of London took place on the Jubilee line going out to the Olympic Stadium on a sunny August afternoon. A group of New Zealand swimmers came on at London Bridge, young, fit with razor sharp muscles, exactly what you’d expect to see in an Olympian Kiwi water sportsman. The carriage came to life and there was a genuine interaction between the athletes and passengers especially with the youngsters who were requesting autographs - the ambiance was beautiful, just right. Why should I have been surprised?
That Underground train transported spectators to Stratford, to the Stadium and to the centre of today’s totem of modern consumerism – Westfield. Why was it crammed full of visitors from all over the world, shopping, eating, relaxed yet excited, where athletes were openly meandering through the complex forever attached to their Accreditation? They were here for the purpose of meeting their family, our planets’ family, the Olympic Family. Soon it will be Rio’s turn - lucky Rio.
Early on in my time on the desks at Heathrow I quickly realised just how important the Accreditation was to the athletes (apart from it acting as a Visa Waiver for the duration of the Games). On several occasions just after I had placed the lanyard over a head, these athletes would hug each other, laughing, savouring the moment that at last they had arrived, here in London to showcase their talent. It was a happy cameo but it didn’t stop there. No, there was to be more, much more.
One quiet evening after all the Olympic family had arrived for the day a young man, alone, approached the desks and asked, what turned out to be a spurious request, the best way to reach his London hotel. He said he wasn’t looking to be accredited, but was just visiting London briefly and wanted to sample the atmosphere in town – he produced his hotel booking confirmation, the same type as we all have these days, a printed e-mail. It was a very nice hotel indeed and expensive.
The issue of the best underground station for his hotel hadn’t even been raised before he reached into his hand luggage and pulled out a laminated Accreditation. Well actually he very proudly, with a huge smile, held his Accreditation from the 2008 Beijing Olympics and passed it to me (just like you would a baton or a torch) before going on to explain that he was an elite swimmer and had reached the finals in Beijing but hadn’t won a medal. I felt so honoured that he wanted to share this piece of his Olympic story with me – the Accreditation clearly meant everything to him and at that moment I grasped something of what it meant to participate in the Games. This was a glimpse into the soul of the Olympic Ideal - the lanyard was still attached too.
Over the whole period the Accreditation process had worked well at Heathrow due in no small part to the LOCOG managers who displayed measured decision making well beyond their own youthful years.
Obviously the hustle and bustle atmosphere that surrounded the Brazilian football team was interesting, what with validating the prodigiously talented Brazilian footballer, Neymar, lanyard over his head, shaking his hand, wishing him well, it was just another day at the office as the whole football team had a carnival in front of the desks, with nods towards Rio 2016.
Then early one morning everything changed.
This was to be a hidden, deeper side of the Games I hadn’t yet experienced – and it has had a profound effect on me.
Life can sometimes be like a quest, where you’re always on the lookout for the one defining moment that seems to justify all that’s gone before yet at the same time lays down a pathway to the future.
Some people turn to religion, others retreat inwards searching for peace and tranquillity. Many keep looking all their lives, leaving no stone unturned in a torment of trawling for an answer that may at first seem undefinable but if found will spark a flame which offers some definitive measure of the human condition. Always looking, further and beyond and within, that’s what we do, we humans, isn’t it?
What happened on that mid-July morning at 6.45 am was to lead me into the inner sanctum of some kind of Jungian temple.
My Games were about to be defined.
A plane load of South Africans had just arrived, about ninety family members in number, with some wearing colourful zany headwear on top of tired but happy faces. The atmosphere was youthfully exuberant, buzzing with excited chatter and they looked resplendent in their green and gold colours as cameramen took publicity photographs of the athletes wrapped in the national flag. There was a lot happening and we were all in a good place.
Stepping forward from the line, there she was standing in front of me – the Olympic Ideal. Sometimes a name stuck and I would follow their progress in competition but I didn’t note the athlete’s name on this occasion; making what followed all the more powerful. She has become my Unknown Olympian representing the Olympic aspiration of Citius, Altius, Fortius.
We continued, exchanging the usual pleasantries.
‘Welcome to London, what event are you taking part in?’
‘I’m a rower’ she said, handing me her passport and Accreditation certificate and as I laminated the plastic I asked her, unrehearsed, to do something quite simple. I hadn’t asked anyone else before or after to do this. We were in unscripted but familiar territory.
‘Remember and text home to let them know how you’re doing’, I reminded her.
Yeah Yeah, I Will, I Will’, she said.
And then we laughed at this, together.
I can’t explain what compelled me to ask her to do that, I just don’t know, but it could have been a father addressing his daughter or an intuitive spontaneous exchange between two humans, one seeking some confirmation of the hope that burns from the heart of the Olympic torch and the other subconsciously recognising this before passing that torch of hope back with these simple words.
She could have merely said ‘Ok’, ‘I will’ or ‘Sure’ but her manner, so pleasant, the repetition in the phrase, so endearing, the sincerity in her voice, the laughter, the rocking on her heels as she laughed, she’d caught the gentle humour in the request, then the eye contact and laughter with her friend standing nearby displayed a deeper body language which was stating something else too. The two friends exchanging friends’ words, then they were off, together, friends together, for life.
This is what she was really saying; this is what she really meant.
‘Yeah Yeah, I Will, I Will text home and let them know I’ve arrived safe and well, because here I am in London after years of hard work and dedication, I’m here to meet and compete with the best athletes from all over the world – my Olympic Family, and I now have a stage to let the world know exactly who I am. I want to show everyone just what I can do. I want to do my best for myself for my family for my friends for my teammates for everyone watching and I want to uphold the spirit of the Olympic Games. I’m going to enjoy my time in London so Yeah Yeah, I Will, I Will’.
As she turned to re-join her team, I swear I could just about make out the shape of those wings on her heels.
I believe what I’d witnessed was the living embodiment of the Olympic Spirit – after waiting more than half a century and ever since I first saw moving images of the Olympics, this one moment, and those simple words, linked that past with the future and the true meaning of the Olympic legacy crystallised, living breathing, hoping, in front of me. Being a volunteer games maker presented me with a rare opportunity to be part of this and to feel this.
With the welcome jamboree over and the completion of everyone’s Accreditation the South Africans moved off, together as a team, to seek their Olympic goal, their glory, everyone ‘happy and glorious’.
There was The Rower, with her courage, a pulsating heart amidst the throng, on her own journey through life, devoid of cynicism and carrying an abundance of her Olympic dream to be Faster, Higher, Stronger, with her own words showing the way; rebounding round the desks, resounding in my head – Yeah Yeah, I Will, I Will.