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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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.