Alan White's Olympics diary: Great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous

Thank goodness for Ian Thorpe, Nigerian table-tennis players and all the other Olympic wonders.

Friday 27 July

Outrage. Mitt Romney has slagged off our preparations. Clearly, there’s something in the air, because this is seen as a gaffe. How dare he come over here and say exactly the same thing our press has been saying for the last two weeks! I feel the tone has been set: this might end up being a bloody shambles, but if is, it’s our bloody shambles.

On Sky News, meanwhile, Kay Burley is talking to a former Olympic weightlifter. “So how good were you?” she asks.

I know there’s something odd going on when I begin to feel the love for Jeremy Hunt. The Minister has an unfortunate incident in which he inadvertently imperils a woman with his bell end (there really is no other way to report this). The disco remix is online in minutes. I’ve now watched this clip 763 times, and it doesn’t stop being funny.

There are under-reported things I particularly like – first, the Frank Spencer “Ooo!” he makes as the bell flies off, and second the classic English knee-jerk, embarrassment-defusing comment about everyone’s favourite bugbear, “Health and Safety”. I mean, if there’s anyone who actually should care about Health and Safety it’s presumably a man responsible for organizing a global sporting event, but anyway.

Kay Burley is talking to the crowds on Tower Bridge. She asks an 11-year-old child if he remembers Sir Paul McCartney. He doesn’t understand what she means.

A bunch of us gather at a mate’s house to watch the ceremony. “This is like a shite panto,” a friend texts. We’re pretty cynical. It’s hard to pick out the moment when the mood in the room shifts. For me, I think it’s the moment when I realize they’re forging the Olympic rings. So many thousands of words have been written on this by better writers than me – all I can say is I agree with the summation that Beijing showed its strength, Britain its soul.

Not everyone’s happy, of course. Aiden Burley MP doesn’t like the “multicultural crap”, but then when your idea of fun is hanging out with guys dressed as Nazis I suppose most public events are a bit of a letdown. He justifies it by complaining about all the rappers (i.e. Dizzee Rascal). Toby Young complains that there wasn’t enough attention paid to Churchill’s speeches, the Commonwealth or Margaret Thatcher. Later, Rick Dewsbury writes something vile and racist in the Daily Mail before chickening out (read this – really, you must).

This, of course, is just the lunatic fringe. To my mind the only really serious criticism comes from David Icke, who points out the satanic elements of what we’ve witnessed. Things get worse in this regard when I discover the Olympic Mascots are tools of the Illuminati.

Anyway, Aidan Burley must be fuming as the stadium starts to fill up with foreigners, but fortunately they’re just the athletes. At the house party I’m attending – and no doubt thousands of others, an extremely competitive alphabetical next country guessing game unfolds. “It’ll be the Gambia coming in next; just wait. Oh damn you, Gabon!”

By the end of the ceremony we’re all quite drunk, and left with more questions than answers. Who the hell are the Independent Olympic Athletes? (Answer here). Is that...Shami Chakrabarti? (It was). They dared to have the Arctic Monkeys on rather than Coldplay or someone? (They really did).

And finally…did they really let some unknowns light the flame, after all that speculation? Because if they did…well, that’s just beautiful.

 

Sat 28 July

The morning starts with a hangover and a second viewing of the Olympics ceremony. It’s twice as good second time around, though Trevor Nelson is four times as annoying.

On with the TV, and into the action. Obviously we have to watch Mark Cavendish in the road race. But this is on for hours, and nothing much happens till near the end. Right, let’s head to the rowing on the red button – Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend (no, obviously I’ve no idea who they are either, but they’re British) are neck and neck with the young pretenders of Argentina but now the champions, New Zealand, have burst past the pair of them and…

What’s this I see on Twitter? Fran Halsall’s just made the semis of the 100m butterfly and Dana Vollmer’s just set a new Olympic record!  And what’s that? Robbie Rennick’s leading the 400m freestyle? Time to flip over. Actually I’d better check on the road race just in case Cavendish has been taken out by a squirrel or something. No, he’s fine. But now I’ve missed what’s happened to Rennick. So I go online to check and OH MY GOD THERE ARE 24 LIVE CHANNELS OF THIS STUFF.

How the hell am I supposed to manage this? I’ve parked the cyling, I’ve got the swimming on the telly and China playing the Czech Republic at women’s basketball on the computer (and my God is that violent). But how do I monitor the preliminary round of the women’s -48kg judo? And sub-division 1 of the men’s gymnastic qualifiers? The Three-Day Eventing Dressage?

It’s a relief to leave the house and go to my first event: the ping pong. Note: under no circumstances should you call it that when in the arena. Serious fans and competitors get touchy.

The first impression is, bluntly, fantastic. The reason? The volunteers. They all seem genuinely happy to be there. Especially this woman. For all the cynicism – and no doubt much of it isn’t misplaced – there’s a spirit among the crowds. And it’s – well, it’s multicultural. Some guys from Thailand in ceremonial robes pose for a snap with a couple of American tourists. Some Japanese people are entranced by two British guys in weightlifting fancy dress.

The sport itself is fantastic. No doubt the crowd favourite is the Nigerian Segun Toriola – it’s not every day you see a Nigerian table-tennis player, and not only that, he has a very showboaty forehand smash.

It’s a great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous. It’s the little reminders that it’s tennis, but small. I like it when the contestants turn to their coach and give them the fist pump, like they do at Wimbledon, but because it’s table tennis, the coach is right behind them so they’re screaming in their face. And they always have to retrieve the ball themselves.

My favourite athletes, generally, are ones with names about which I can make rubbish jokes to my other half. So I’m overjoyed when Miao Miao of China enters the stadium. She remains my favourite athlete right up until the point I hear unconfirmed reports a Wong Wai is competing in the cycling.

 

Sun 29 July

Last night I noticed there was a block of empty seats at the table tennis. Strange, I thought. Turns out there’s a major story here.

The media is struggling to find out whose fault it is. Initially, we all assume it’s the sponsors’ fault, but it soon comes to pass that it’s more complicated than that, and it’s to do with allocations to foreign countries. Turns out we can’t actually blame McDonald’s or the bureaucrats that Jacques Rogge laughably described as “working class” as much as we’d like. Hopefully a solution will be found, be it volunteers, people from the community, or the army.

It all begs the question of what the sponsors are getting out of this. No one seems to have a good word to say for them – which is presumably why they get instantly blamed for the biggest scandal thus far, and they don’t even seem to get that many seats. What’s their return on investment. Worth it? I ask a mate who works in the sports industry. “Studies say so,” he says. “But it’s all smoke and mirrors. No one’s got a bloody clue, to be honest.”

Anyway, thank goodness for Ian Thorpe. Ian has been on the BBC since it kicked off, providing funny, honest and insightful opinion. There’s something incredibly soothing about his manner and voice. So we’ve just cut to the British contestant getting knocked out of another random event? Don’t worry. Ian’s here. It’ll all be alright.

Speaking of nice people, the two stories of the day are Lizzie Armitstead in the road race and Rebecca Adlington in the 400m. Armitstead wins silver after a thrilling sprint and Adlington a far-from-guaranteed bronze (apropos of nothing, one more award than Frankie Boyle won for Tramadol Nights). Both of them – as is the case, it seems, with many athletes - are charming, sweet-natured women. 

The next day, Armitstead will talk about the problems with sexism in cycling, and London’s mayor will write about the female beach volleyball players “glistening like otters” in an otherwise rather good article on the Olympics thus far. To be fair to him, it’s the sort of cheap joke we’ve all made. But as it happens, the beach volleyball is one of the most exciting events of the day, for quite different reasons: Britain pull off a thrilling victory over Canada. Who must be better at it than, say, Switzerland, at least.

After many, many hours of sport, I switch to BBC One and see Ian Thorpe is STILL there, after what I think is twenty consecutive hours of intense punditry. This man is putting in a shift. I fall asleep to the sound of his voice. “Look,” he says. “Look.” “Look.” “Go to sleep now. Ian’s looking after you.”

Check back for more updates through the week from Alan White's Olympic Diary.

 

The Olympics! Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.