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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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.