Remember those riots? Buses and shops ablaze, hooded teenagers smashing windows and casually strolling off with flat screen TVs, sirens wailing… Olympic London has showed a much different face. Cheerful volunteers and welcoming “London 2012 Ambassadors” patrol every corner, Team GB flags and teeshirts are everywhere. Policemen and stewards are helpful and polite. Every TV in every bar or cafe shows an Olympic scene, and more often than not, a British participant on his or her way to winning a medal.
My own visit to the periphery of the Olympic Park was tinged with nostalgia. My University of London college, Queen Mary, which I attended from 1974 to 1977, is a couple of miles away in the Mile End Road. Stratford, the site of the Park and a huge new Westfields shopping mall, had a branch of a well-known supermarket and nothing else to justify alighting from the tube on my way back to various apartments and halls of residence in East London and Essex. The speed and scale of the transformation has been breathtaking. I was unable to enter the Park without a ticket, and tickets were hard to come by. I glimpsed what was the media centre of the world from Stratford’s gleaming new precincts, advised by a kindly volunteer that there was no point hanging around to try and get a ticket.
So I went instead to nearby Hackney’s Victoria Park where, in 1978, I saw The Clash, Steel Pulse, The Buzzcocks and the Tom Robinson Band, to name a few, perform at the Rock Against Racism concert. Here I watched on big screens as Team GB scooped up a few more medals, surrounded by fast-food stands selling burgers, pizzas, and fish and chips: the food of champions, apparently. A group of young ethnic Asians distributed goodie bags of Islamic material, including copies of the Koran, near the entrance. Nobody seemed to mind.
For now, the capital is shrouded in a blanket of feel-good pride and magnanimous warm-heartedness. The TV shots from Greenwich reveal the city at its best, with a majestic, historic and dynamic skyline. Reports of London being a ghost-town are also exaggerated, although you could be forgiven for thinking all the shoppers in the world are in Stratford if you didn’t visit anywhere else. Hyde Park was packed for the men’s triathlon, with many spectators heading down to Knightsbridge for retail indulgence after the event.
Back at the Bank of England, just off the route of the Olympic marathon, the economic warnings continue to be issued. Gold is still the commodity of choice as well as the reward for athletic endeavour. London has scored a triumph. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the Paralympics come next, but they will have a hard act to follow. It will be interesting to see how London copes with the inevitable post-Olympic hangover.