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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.