SPORTS

Sebastian Coe column: Halfway there and the bell rings

08/04/2012 04:43 EDT | Updated 10/04/2012 05:12 EDT
LONDON - As the London Olympics reaches its halfway stage, I can almost hear the bell ringing as if I'm running once more in the Olympics, and there is now just one lap — or one week, as it happens — to go.

The finishing line still seems quite far away, but things are going better than anyone in my team could have expected, based on some of the predictions of gloom and doom in the lead up to the event, which tends to be part of the landscape for all games, it seems.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sebastian Coe, a former two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1,500 metres, led London's winning bid for the Olympics and has spent seven years heading the games' organizing committee for the biggest peacetime project in British history. Here is his look at the London Olympics at the halfway point.

The most pleasing part of this first week of the games has been feedback from athletes and team officials who have said they have rarely, if ever, witnessed sport that has been so well presented, attended or so compelling.

Glancing over my shoulder, I know problems will always be lurking, but if we just push on, there is now a good chance that we can cross the finishing line at next Sunday's closing ceremony, having delivered an electrifying sporting experience for the athletes of the world.

The first half of the London Games has been a spectacular success that has transformed a naturally cautious British public into a nation of delirious cheerleaders. It has also entranced visitors, spectators and foreign journalists who are experiencing an Olympics designed to show off sport and the athletes in London and its iconic landmarks at their best along with a cheery hospitality and a warming human touch.

We wanted to stage a games for everyone, and the whole nation has responded by embracing the Olympics in a way few of us thought possible. Ordinary people with no previous interest in sport are asking arcane questions about the rules of the keirin cycling event or why three-day eventing lasts four days. Britons everywhere are glued to their television screens watching sports they had barely heard of before. On the trains and underground network serving the venues, whole carriages are abuzz with excited Olympic chatter.

Traditional British reserve has crumbled as strangers exchange Olympic news and watch each other's portable screens to catch the latest action. Last night, volunteers steering people returning from the Olympic Park to their next destinations were high-fiving travellers at King's Cross station. This is a place where the most connection you normally get with a fellow-commuter is an angry glare if you accidentally brush against his umbrella.

So how did this extraordinary transformation of the British public happen? Look no further than the Olympic torch relay and THAT opening ceremony.

For 10 weeks before the games started, the Olympic flame visited just about every part of the British Isles, taking in every imaginable landmark and beauty spot, carried by every conceivable means of transport and by inspirational torchbearers from the severely disabled to A-list celebrities. It enthused the entire nation.

The opening ceremony exceeded every expectation. For years, I have been told we could never compete with the awe-inspiring visual wizardry of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I always said London would do something different.

Cue Danny Boyle and one of the world's most fertile, artistic minds, and what did we get? A jaw-dropping celebration of everything that is British, which raised excitement levels to fever pitch.

If overseas viewers may have missed some of the cultural references and in-jokes, it hardly mattered in such a mind-blowing spectacle. The ceremony incorporated all those things we love most about Britain — a quirky sense of humour, a love of eccentricity, a sense of fair play and the embracing of multiculturalism.

Many of my fellow-countrymen have told me how proud they felt to be British that night - and no wonder.

Central to everything was the music, the music, the music. Half a century of the best of British, reminding us just how great our creative legacy is.

The Olympics has become the global stage for sport's most compelling and dramatic moments — from Jesse Owens making a mockery of Hitler's Aryan beliefs at the 1936 Berlin Games to Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10 at Montreal in 1976. London is building on this and providing its own moments of sporting glory.

If anyone thought the sport might be a letdown after that almighty launch provided by the opening ceremony, they had not reckoned with what would happen when the world's best prepared athletes meet the world's most enthusiastic public.

The games seem to have captured everyone's attention, but most pleasing has been feedback from athletes and team officials who have said they have never experienced sport that has been so well presented, attended or so compelling.

Britons have clamoured to get tickets to see any part of the action from judo preliminaries to the final of the men's 100 metres in the Olympic Stadium.

The atmosphere in the stadiums has been electric and the athletes have naturally risen to the occasion. We have had the exploits of Michael Phelps in the swimming pool, taking legendary status to super-legendary levels by setting new career Olympic medals records — 21 in all, 17 of them gold and still counting (Later Saturday night, Phelps won his 22nd medal and 18th gold).

British success was needed too and nothing could have been better to enthuse the nation still more than seeing the country's first Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins take Olympic gold in the individual time trial. Rowing, cycling, swimming and even judo have kept the home medal count humming nicely.

The backdrops have been visually stunning. Beach volleyball at Horseguards Parade, the equestrian at Greenwich Park, rowing at Eton Dorney and the Olympic Park and stadium itself have produced television and still photo gold.

Seeing 80,000 people packed into the Olympic Stadium for the first day's heats at athletics was another Olympic first. Even Sydney in 2000, where local enthusiasm for the games set new standards, could not quite manage that.

Has it all been great? Of course not. With something on this scale, not everything will be absolutely perfect from day one but there's been nothing like the mayhem many predicted, testimony to years of detailed planning and the commitment of millions of people across the city and around the world. There have been problems — some badminton players trying to lose matches, a couple of doping cheats — but nothing yet to shatter the dream.

Could it all go wrong in the last week? Well, it could. The games is always at the mercy of a major security incident, a transport problem that causes gridlock, freak weather or an unexpected scandal.

But as I hit the bell, I'm staying positive and only looking ahead. There's still a way to go and our goal will be to continue to prevent any shortcomings of our own making from impacting on the performances of the athletes.

The large and noisy crowds have prompted some to call these the People's Games, but really these games have been designed from the outset nearly a decade ago for the athletes with sport at heart. These are the Athletes' Games.

I want to be able to look each athlete in the eye at the end of next week and for them to say their performance was the result solely of their own efforts and preparation and that the organizers had provided the platform to perform at their best.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Sebastian Coe, a former two-time Olympic gold medallist in the 1,500 metres, led London's winning bid for the Olympics and has spent seven years heading the games' organizing committee for the biggest peacetime project in British history. Here is his look at the London Olympics at the halfway point.

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