International Olympic Committee

City keeps its vow to deliver 'People's Games'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:03pm

The naysayers have lost and Britain, London and sport have triumphed.

With a week remaining of more intense competition, the halfway mark has been cause for celebration among the cheering sports fans, the dedicated athletes, the IOC and Locog. Many believed the Games would be a flop. The misery brigade - with many a Brit among them - said this second-tier, broke nation in the throes of a deep recession would be unable to summon the Olympic spirit and raise its game to a high enough level.

Worse, it had to impress after Beijing's logistical spectacle. Well, how wrong the doom merchants have been. The host city is performing as well as the athletes with an exemplary performance (more or less) in traffic, crowd control and security.

And despite the pre-Games security debacle and the scandal (now more or less fixed) over empty seats, London has encapsulated the true spirit of the event, a sports competition many call the greatest show on earth.

Why? Well, aside from the spellbinding drama on the field of play and some of the greatest Olympians ever to grace the podiums - Phelps, Douglas, Wiggins, Pendleton, Ye and now Hong Kong's own cycling heroine Lee Wai-sze among them - these Games are also living up the hackneyed, chintzy moniker 'The People's Games'.

The UK's politicians, the IOC lane hogging officials and the overly imposing sponsors' logos have of course been instrumental in staging this sporting feast. But what is making these 17 days of wonderment extra special is the universal sense that the people - fans, locals and visitors - really own the games.

During the past few days, the noise from the public galleries has been overwhelming and the collective celebration and enjoyment of sport unsurpassed. After the pre-show nerves, there has been a relaxed but professional feel to the Games and that is thanks to the stewards, volunteers and security personnel. This has rubbed off on the sporting bureaucrats who are also grinning ear to Olympic ear.

The origin of this successful light touch is found with the athletes, for it is their performances that have swept away the earlier doom and gloom, with more than 13 world 37 Olympic records smashed, and their gracious behaviour in victory and defeat an example for us all.

All eyes have mostly been on the venues in and close to London but the sporting spirit is positively alive on Britain's south coast. There, the salty brine is foaming as if it has been shaken by a South China Sea typhoon.

Today at the Olympic sailing venue of Weymouth, the mother of all gold medal battles is to take place on the English Channel. Britain's serial Olympic sailing champion 'Big Ben' Ainslie takes on the 'Great Dane' Jonas Hugh-Christensen in the 10-boat Finn class, double-points medal race.

Ainslie, who is on a white-knuckled, close-haul sail towards his fourth consecutive gold medal, is in the midst of a nasty spat with bitter rival Hogh-Christensen, a battle of wits and wills that has become verbal among the marks and on dry land.

During two of the most intense sailing dogfights of his illustrious career, Ainslie claimed Hogh-Christensen and Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma ganged up against him, forcing him to do a penalty turn in race two. He claimed his rivals lied when they told judges he had touched when rounding the third mark. Despite the penalty, the redoubtable Ainslie fought back to keep touch with his antagonists.

Back in the boat park, the fired-up Brit was full of fighting talk and one could be forgiven for thinking he has been watching too many of Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns during his Olympic down time. 'They've made a big mistake. They've made me angry and you don't want to make me angry,' the steely Ainslie assured.

In following races, he stormed back into gold-medal contention and today will see a watery version of an OK Corral shoot out - a battle to the death at which Ainslie is a master. The 35-year-old excels as the last-gasp executioner and dispatches those who dare venture too close to his briny kingdom with ruthless efficiency.

The coastal mind games and skulduggery have set the Olympic Regatta alight. The relaxed, long-haired, bearded and generally unkempt Hogh-Christensen casually dismissed Ainslie's verbal cannon salvo. Win or lose, he said, he is likely retire from competitive sailing and return to his chosen career as a music promoter.

The pair are all but assured of gold and silver so long as Dutchman Postma does not beat Ainslie by more than six places and Hogh-Christensen by five.

'It is going to be really tough. Jonas has sailed really well all week. It is a bit perverse but I quite like these situations,' Ainslie said, echoing the sentiments of the huge crowds that are expected to gather on the shore line today. The forecasted weather - a force five south westerly, sunshine and showers - is set perfect for a stormy medal showdown.

The 2012 Olympic regatta is also the swansong Games for windsurfing, which is giving way to kitesurfing from 2016 Rio. There will be a double wave of emotion for Hong Kong's Hayley Chan Hei-man, who battled severe injuries to ensure she made her dream Olympic debut come true.

Making a remarkable recovery after surgery to remove her spleen following a training session collision in June with a dinghy, she will start her bid for a podium place on Tuesday, racing twice a day in a tenacious attempt to make the cut and seal a final medal race berth on August 7.

You can seek out examples of sporting heroics all over these Olympic Isles of Wonder, and if you swivel your spy glass south of the Thames from today, you'll spot among the white tops and troughs the five-petal Bauhinia blakeana fluttering proudly in the wind right alongside the flags of the big guns of Olympic sailing.