Saturday, 30 June 2012

The absence of Zeus

I wasn't planning to see the Olympic flame.  There's so much that's wrong about the Olympics, especially as it's currently run.  I worry about the way Londoners were uprooted, and the excuse for surveillance and repression - similar concerns have been raised about most cities where the Olympics have been held.  When I'm told that London's aim is to rival Beijing, this adds to my concern.

Then there are the lesser worries.  The sponsors are omnipresent and often absurd.  There are concerns about drugs and cheating.  These aren't new.  The Victorian establishment may have idealised sport, by which it meant the amateurism of gentlemen, but the roots of the Olympic games are rougher.  I've been looking at the kind of competitive sports described by Homer - for instance, the funeral games described in Book XXIII of the Iliad.  There's nothing gentlemanly about them.  The competitors want the very costly prizes promised to the winners and they are quite happy to cheat if that will help them win.  The most common form of cheating involves asking for help from a friendly god, as the gods are usually willing to skew the results by tripping up an opponent or giving horses extra speed and strength.  And when the event is over, there are rows between the competitors and appeals to the judges.  Modern-day sports seem pretty fair and restrained by contrast.

But the Olympics evoke the idea of Greek sports so perhaps it's only right that I ascribe my encounter with the Olympic torch to the intervention of Zeus.

My plans for the day were simple: I would mix some necessary work with a trip to the supermarket and a necessary journey to the bank.  If I got those done in the morning, I'd have the rest of the day clear.  I didn't count on the rain.

It wasn't ordinary rain.  It was a long, drenching downpour accompanied by long rumbles of thunder and occasional lightning.  It was more dramatic than any rain I've seen this summer - and that's saying a great deal.  I noted that the Olympic torch relay, which had reached Nottinghamshire, had been halted by the weather - and that the torch itself took a lunchbreak.  That was when I began to blame Zeus.  After all, he's the king of the Olympian gods and responsible for thunder and lightning.  I wondered idly whether Zeus sent the weather as a sign of his displeasure or a particular indication of his pleasure.  Whichever it was, it delayed my plans.

I reached Nottingham and the bank just before closing time.  There was a high stage in the Old Market Square.  To one side was a large, shiny cauldron, ready to receive the flame. Crowds and souvenir-sellers were beginning to assemble.  There was a light drizzle and the sky was getting greyer.  I wondered how long it would be until the next downpour.

Curiously, I began to wander round the sponsors' stalls.  They wanted to give me free things - strange items that made loud noises, objects with a possible sporting connection or even free drinks.  There was the opportunity to be photographed with an Olympic torch.  I took it, as the queues were short.  I had no problem with accepting gifts from a bank, an electronics firm and a soft-drink manufacturer - after all, it wouldn't make me more likely to buy or recommend their products.  I noticed that Nottingham people were much keener on collecting freebies than on buying officially branded Olympics souvenirs - there wasn't much enthusiasm at the stand selling mementos of the torch relay.

Gradually the dark clouds receded.  Instead the sun came out, the rain evaporated from the pavements and Nottingham was filled with an unfamiliar warmth.  Perhaps Zeus was being benevolent - or perhaps he had lost interest in the torch-bearers.  Most likely he was absent.  I know from Homer that he often goes on trips, sometimes pursuing women but often to attend feasts.   Once Zeus had departed, the weather had an unfamiliar warmth.  

I strolled away from the market square towards Nottingham Contemporary.  A few people were sitting on the base of Weekday Cross and the outdoor tables of the bars and cafés were all occupied.  A waited and gradually a gentle crowd - mostly parents with young children - gathered.   Mostly they were quiet but a group of Brownies sang while brandishing a large replica torch made from cardboard.  Sponsors arrived and distributed flags and souvenirs.  The Nottingham Contemporary zebra emerged from the gallery and shook hands with the children.   Community police and organisers erected barriers to close the road but there weren't enough barriers to line the pavements - but the children sat patiently on the kerb, waiting.  If there was any shoving or complaining, I didn't see it.

The first part of the procession was a convoy of police on motorbikes.  The children applauded and waved their flags.  Some of the policemen waved back.  There were lorries, cars and vans (several from the sponsors) as well as occasional cyclists.  No-one was sure wh they were but we applauded generously as they smiled and waved.  A coach driver did an imitation of the royal wave - or perhaps his arm was getting tired.  One cyclist carried a typed sign telling us that the flame would arrive in six minutes.  Suddenly I realised that the people smiling and waving from one of the cars were Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean.  They had an Olympic torch with them and had been skating with it in the Ice Centre.  Now they were on their way to take the torch at the next stage and run together with it to the Old Market Square.  I managed to take one, rather blurred photo - proof that I had seen them.  Then we waited again.

Eventually there was another convoy and we could glimpse the torch behind a coach.  Then the torch-bearer came into view.  Someone said he was called Baz and that he ran a boxing club.  We clapped, cheered, waved and made a noise - and, as the torch-bearer raised the torch aloft, I found I was unexpectedly moved by the event.  The wasn't a glossy star or a photogenic youngster but an older man who looked like someone I might meet in the post office, greengrocer's, library or bus queue.  I was pleased with how he looked and that I could applaud a local man who had helped others through sport.  He ran holding the torch with the smoothness of an athlete.  

I suppose we saw him for a minute at most.  He ran comfortably down the hill to the next "kiss-point" - the toe-curlingly embarrassing name for the point at which the flame is passed from torch to torch.  But for a moment I did feel, against all my expectations, that I had witnessed something that mattered - something as simple as a man holding a torch and running down a Nottingham street.

It doesn't solve any of the problems with the Olympics and I still have considerable respect for the anti-Olympics protesters, who are asking necessary questions.  But the part of the torch relay I saw was impressive, for all its questionable history.  I hope that the children who watched and cheered remember the event.  I'd like to think that they might take from it a sense that they can witness and take part in history and that important events take place in their own streets.  Unlikely, perhaps, but there was a gentle kindness in the occasion that let me dream, if only for an hour or so.

Later I mingled with the huge crowds in the Old Market Square.  There too I noticed an unfamiliar gentleness.  Local schoolchildren were performing on the stage as the flame burned in the cauldron.  Then the flame was transferred to a small lantern and taken away.  Apparently even the Olympic flame has to be put to bed at night.

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