I have to say that I am not usually very good at getting around to watching big global sporting events, but finding myself on holiday in London for start of the Olympics, I was deeply inspired. In the days before the Games started, even in austerity-wracked Britain, the atmosphere was buzzing. The daily news kept us up-to-date on the latest heroes of the land carrying the Olympic flame through their neighbourhood – the old, the young, the war veteran amputee, the tireless servants of local communities. I was in Oxford the day the flame came through, and so I joined the crowd lining Cowley Road before the torch ran past. Policemen on motorcycles zoomed by in advance, smiling and giving us precarious-looking high-fives, before suddenly the torch appeared, being run by a smiling middle-aged woman, having the moment of her life, cheered and celebrated by the people of her city.
In 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 RAF Red Arrow stunt planes, in perfect formation, veered across the London sky. This was new to me – the officially restricted fly-zone rules of London being officially 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 being given for us to leave our jadedness and cynicism behind and become children again, to celebrate the giant global celebration of life and nerve and muscle that was about to begin. And all this was only the build up.
On the gloriously sunny Day One we went to Richmond Park to watch a section of the men’s 150 mile Cycling Road Race. Huge crowds lined the road as far as the eye could see in both directions and as most of us did not quite how fast these men in Lycras would be cycling, we were rather surprised when they appeared on the hill half a mile away, and proceeded past us so fast that all I can recall is a blurred flash of helmets, shining in the sun.
Due to the unpredictable balloting system, everyone I knew seemed have received tickets to see all manner of sports of which they knew amusingly nothing. One friend had tickets to see the table tennis; another friend’s daughter had tickets to the wrestling. My parents, meanwhile, invited us to join them to see the women’s volleyball heats on Day Three. In the first match, we saw China vs. Turkey. What initially struck me was just how tall, strong and dangerous-looking these women were in real life – like giants! With some incredible blocking and smashing, the Chinese quite easily took the first two sets, and they only needed one more to win. But what happened next was truly inspiring. Turkey – who had surely been training for years to get to this moment, and sensing their fate so close – suddenly started to fight back. Their defense became tighter, their smashes more determined, their teamwork brilliant. We had initially been a docile crowd, but now, although I was ultimately supporting China, I joined the throng in a deep and passionate involvement, as we clobbered our feet, and shouted out our lungs for the underdogs. The Turks took the third set, and we cheered, but in the fourth, the Chinese fought back hard, and won a close but sure victory. It was inspiring to behold both the winners and losers, it had been an epic battle.
After the match, my wife and I headed to Heathrow, to fly home to Hong Kong via Beijing. To our surprise we discovered a large contingent of the fabled Chinese swimming team on the same flight as us. We chatted to some of them: their events were now finished, they said, and the accommodation was too crowded so they had to go home. It seemed a shame to me that they could not stay and enjoy the games, but they didn’t seem to mind. All Olympic athletes, as we have so often read, are people of extraordinary dedication, focus, discipline, and natural prowess. However, although they may appear to us as gods of our race, upon meeting them, it was wonderful to find that these Chinese athletes were indeed human – just like you and me. They were polite, friendly, humble, part of a team, living with a purpose. Meeting them made me feel like I was not separated from the Olympics, but part of the same giant party.
So now I am home in Hong Kong, I want to watch more Olympics on TV, even if I am not familiar with the sport. I know it will be inspiring to see the winners, whose hard work has paid off. But in a way, perhaps I find it even more inspiring to see the losers – these great men great men and women who are prepared to put themselves out there in the arena, and fail with literally billions of people watching them. I find inspiration from them to more deeply put my heart and soul into the challenges of life, and actually to take on some bigger challenges in which there is a real danger of “failing”. For surely it is worth living “in the arena”, like Teddy Roosevelt famously said in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. 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.
See you in Rio.