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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.