Virtuous circles

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:07pm


We were in Oxford the day the Olympic flame came through last month, so my wife and I joined the crowd lining the roads to watch.

Policemen on motorcycles zoomed by, and suddenly the torch appeared, borne by a smiling, middle-aged woman having the moment of her life, cheered on by the people of her city.

In the days before the London Games started, even in austerity-wracked Britain, the atmosphere was buzzing. The daily news kept us updated on the latest heroes carrying the Olympic flame through their neighbourhoods - the old, the young, the war veteran amputee, the tireless servants of local communities.

I don't usually get around to watching big, global sporting events, but we were in London as part of our summer holidays. And I have to say, we've been deeply inspired by the Olympics.

On the evening of the opening ceremony, as we walked to our local community hall to watch it on a big screen, the sky suddenly boomed and the legendary Royal Air Force Red Arrow stunt planes streaked across the sky. This was new to me - the restricted fly-zone rules of London officially being broken.

And then in the ceremony - with the 'queen' jumping out of a helicopter and Mr Bean messing up a London Symphony Orchestra performance - royal permission was given for us to leave our jadedness and cynicism behind and become children again, to join in the giant global celebration of life and nerve and muscle that was about to begin.

On the gloriously sunny first day of competition, we went to Richmond Park to watch the 250 kilometre men's cycling road race. Huge crowds lined the road as far as the eye could see. We did not realise quite how fast these Lycra-clad men would be going; all I can recall is a blurred flash of helmets shining in the sun when they went past.

We watched the women's volleyball heats on day three, with the first match between China and Turkey. These women look tall, strong and dangerous in the flesh. With some incredible blocking and smashing, the Chinese easily took the first two sets, and they only needed one more to win.

Then, Turkey - sensing their fate was so close - suddenly started to fight back. Their defence became tighter, their smashes more determined, their teamwork brilliant. The initially docile crowd now became a passionate throng on its feet, shouting out for the underdogs. Although I was ultimately supporting China, I joined in. The Turks took the third set, but in the fourth, the Chinese fought back hard and won. It was an epic battle.

We headed to Heathrow for our flight home to Hong Kong via Beijing. We were surprised to find a large contingent of the fabled Chinese swimming team on the flight. They said their events were over and the accommodation was too crowded so they had to go home. It seemed a shame they couldn't stay and enjoy the Games.

We found out during this chance meeting that the Chinese athletes are mortals like you and I. They were polite, friendly and humble. Meeting them made me feel like I was not separated from the Olympics, but part of the same giant party.

I'll continue to watch the Games on television at home, even if I am not familiar with most sports. I know it will be inspiring to see the winners, but even more so the losers. For it reminds me of that great Teddy Roosevelt speech of 1910: 'The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood... Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.'