Alan White's Olympic diary: Ten reasons the Olympics have been absolutely awesome

The athletes! The facts! The medals! Ian Thorpe! The volunteers!

Conscious I’ve been moaning too much this week; so as not to give a false impression:

1. The opening ceremony

As Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail correctly surmised, this was a work of Marxist propaganda. Those of us familiar with Danny Boyle’s oeuvre have understood his political leanings ever since we heard about his famous homage to centralised work targets, 127 Hours. Mr Boyle’s ceremony was a classic piece of insidious leftism, from its flagrant celebration of the fact Britons receive free health care to its steadfast refusal to re-enact great moments in our foreign policy such as the Battle of Omdurman or the sinking of the Belgrano, both of which would have worked well set to something appropriate like Don’t Look Back In Anger.

Despite these failings on Mr Boyle’s part, he somehow produced a performance that was quirky, heartwarming, witty and exciting.

2. The lure of the obscure

It’s amazing how quickly one can move from a) Not knowing what sport it is, to b) Not understanding the rules, to c) Being really quite engrossed, to d) Swearing at the TV when the British contestant does something wrong.

During yesterday’s trap shooting the entire process took me something like three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, which puts me in Medal Contention (see point six).

3. The athletes are incredible

From the tortured vulnerability of Vicky Pendleton to the folksy, mutton-chopped charm of Wiggo, they’re all just so damn lovable. And to pick an example from yesterday:

What I consider adversity: The fact I had to catch a rail replacement bus service some of last month.

What Gemma Gibbons, silver medal winner in judo, considers adversity:  The death of her mother when she was 17. Her mother had brought Gemma up alone and had taken her, on public transport, to all her judo classes. Gemma later worked as a receptionist to pay the rent, all the while attempting to become a professional athlete.

She was, in terms of this tournament – a no one - ranked 42nd in the world at the start. That’s why I think the shot of her after the semi-final might well end up the defining one of the games, because she’d just laid the smack down on someone from France. Because she embodies the Olympic spirit. And that’s just our girl. Look at the story of the woman who beat her.

4. Politicians proving beyond all doubt they’re weird

Boris getting stuck up a zip wire like a great big toddler in a sling, the Romneyshambles, Aiden Burley’s ill-advised tweets, The Curse of Cameron...where does it end? Politicos have been queuing up to look like Normal People this week, and failing miserably. Jeremy Hunt today claims Locog tricked him into paying £2,400 for four tickets, but the telling suggests he didn’t understand his own organising committee’s website. It would be a big story, but given this is a man who nearly killed a woman with his bell end a few days ago, the take-up hasn’t been huge. Nothing will surprise us.

5. Meet the parents

Is there any sweeter a sight than the parental pride we’ve witnessed at these games? I know I’ve already linked to both these videos, but the parents of Aly Raisman and Chad le Clos deserve to become stars in their own right. I particularly enjoyed the commentators last night exclusively referring to the latter as “The son of Bert le Clos”. More of this please.

6. The languages

Two things, here. First, I love the feeling of being in a crowd and thereby surrounded by the world. At the Table Tennis, it was admittedly an annoying Australian woman who kept cheering on her competitor even though he being destroyed and the rest of the stand was watching a different game, but at the boxing I was near a whole group of excitable Kazakhstanis who were making a thoroughly rousing din, and it’s not often you can say that.

Then there’s the Olympic language of neologisms. “Podium” and “medal” as verbs are rather nasty, it must be said, but one BBC commentator saw a rider fall off a trotting horse and inadvertently claimed they’d “decanted”, which I love.

7. The games staff

We Brits really don’t do this stuff very well, normally. Ever tried engaging a Heathrow border guard in chit-chat? At best you’ll get a forced smile; at worst, or perhaps slightly better, you’re looking at a cavity search.

But the games volunteers I’ve met have been, to a man and woman – wonderful. Who are these 70,000 purple-jacketed lunatics? Why are they doing this? Because they want to? Read the words of this strange creature. Is this really Britain?

And never mind them – let’s talk about the army. Many of us don’t get to meet soldiers all that often, nor hear about them in anything other than a negative context. But the ones I’ve met have been every bit as cheery and charming as the volunteers. This despite spending their down-time in somewhat basic conditions. And the thing that really strikes me, and I expect will next time a sombre mood grips the House of Commons for 30 seconds before the Punch and Judy of PMQs kicks off: most of them seem so very, very young. I don’t care if that makes me sound like Max Hastings.

8. “Now, what I want is facts”

They never cease to amaze, if you’re boring, like me. Ten million litres of water in the Aquatic Centre. 30,000 elephants’ worth (official Locog measurement) of concrete to make the Olympic Park. 150,000 condoms given to the athletes (unsure how many elephants’ worth that is). 1,233km of fabric to make the volunteers’ uniforms. 25,000 loaves of bread for the Olympic Village. 10,000 toilets. I could go on, and if you ask me after I’ve been drinking, I will.

9. The presenters

Claire Balding has earned the plaudits she’s deserved for years. Intelligent, professional, geekishly well-informed yet never boring, partisan but not bombastic, she has been a wonder. Stitch that, AA Gill.

The Linekers, Johnsons and McEnroes are known quantities: like the best British teams we don’t have any stand-out stars, at least half our best performers have been imported from overseas and there’s a vague sense of a horrific calamity round the corner. We gave the world Colemanballs, remember.

The wild card in this mix is Ian Thorpe. Now I know opinion on this has been divided so I think it’s important to be clear where I stand: he’s a wonderful man with fantastic dress sense and he’s made me reconsider my sexuality. I’d like to see him become a regular on the BBC, starting on something like The One Show and eventually progressing to become Director General.

10. Medal rush

Where are we in the medals? Why aren’t we ahead of Kazakhstan yet? Why haven’t we won any medals? Ooh, there’s a medal! And there’s another medal! Oh no, we could have had a medal there too! Now where are we? Still behind South Korea? Want ALL the medals. Why? Don’t ask why! Medals! Must have the medals! What’s that? There’s still two weeks to go? We’re going to have you, China!

Odds and Ends is having a day off.

 

Team GB's Gemma Gibbons wins her judo semi-final. 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.