Friday, 17 August 2012

Happy and Glorious

Thankfully, memories of this summer won't be dominated by missed penalties

I passed a ‘Hullympian’ yesterday morning on my walk to work.  Alex Smith, Hull athlete who finished twelfth in the Olympic hammer competition last week, was just entering the gates at Centrica. 
For a split-second I thought about stopping him to shake his hand.  I didn't.  Not only because it’s probably a really dawkish thing to do but because the last time I'd stopped him near the same place, it was to admonish his car-sharing partner for driving through the village like a t__t!
Alex was one of two Hullensians representing the city at London 2012, the other being Luke Campbell, newly-crowned Bantamweight Gold Medallist in the boxing ring. 
On Tuesday evening Hull City Council threw a homecoming party for the pair, which attracted a reported crowd of 13,000 to Queen Victoria Square.  After taking the cheers of those assembled on the balcony of the City Hall, the pair were then treated to a Civic Dinner in the Guildhall, where they mixed with Hull’s great and good.  And John Prescott. 
The duo deserved every bit of the acclaim they received that night.  Throughout the competition Campbell, in particular, couldn't do more to promote his home city and came across as a ereally humble figure, the perfect role model. 
But the same could be said - and has been said - about all our Team GB competitors, successful or otherwise. 
For the medal winners, such homecoming scenes are being replicated to various degree across the length and breadth of the country (with the reported exception of Broxbourne where council red tape originally held up Laura Trott’s family’s plans to throw a street party!).
There appears to be a real feel-good factor sweeping the nation at the moment.  A BBC 5 Live phone-in on Tuesday morning suggested an increase in a feeling of British togetherness, except for one bitter and twisted Aberdonian who said we were misguided if we thought a “school sports day” would derail the march towards Scottish independence.  His view was a minority one – even among his fellow Scots.
For me the recent Olympics became an obsession.  From days spent in the office with the aforementioned 5 Live's superb coverage to late nights with Lineker, Logan and a remote control red button that’s never seen as much use.  Some observers criticised the Beeb for commentary bordering on the jingoistic.  I couldn't disagree more - and I normally jump at the chance to have a pop at Auntie.  Those commentators helped me feel part of each event.
For the past fortnight I've been running with Mo, riding with Victoria (ahem), punching with Luke and diving with Tom…well, maybe not the last one. 
I've also been mesmerised by the so-called minority sports and indeed now regard myself as almost an authority on them; in particular volleyball (in which Team GB was skippered by an East Yorkshireman), showjumping and taekwondo, although water polo still leaves me wondering!
I took special interest in those team sports in which we were expected to be poor.  I’m talking handball, basketball…football.
Ah, football.  So much had been written beforehand about the inclusion of Team GB in both the men’s and women’s competition it seemed they were doomed from the start.  All the brouhaha about the possible ramifications for the independent football associations; the cries of “foul” when star man Gareth Bale was ruled out through injury only to turn up in a friendly for his club on the eve of the competition; and then outrage at the non-singing of the National Anthem, by the Scots girls and Welsh men. 
As Olympians from other sports were lauded for their attitude, humility and grace - not to mention their achievements - football and footballers became the targets of choice.  Poor Powell and Pearce were on a hiding to nothing.
But then something changed.  Slowly but surely the country rallied behind our teams.  Decent crowds in Cardiff witnessed two wins out of two for Hope Powell’s squad before 70,000 attended Wembley to see Stephanie Houghton’s early goal beat Brazil.  As someone who previously regarded women’s football as something of a novelty item, that night blew away several misconceptions for me and, I suspect, many others.
Pleasingly, those on duty for the Team GB men also appeared to have bought into the Olympic ideal (especially Craig Bellamy – an unlikely unifying figure if ever there was one).  And if the atmosphere at Old Trafford for the opener appeared somewhat surreal, both Wembley and The Millennium Stadium rallied behind the team.
Before the tournament, Stuart Pearce had talked of creating a spirit in the country to match that of Euro 96 and getting the nation behind the team in order to carry them all the way.  And just for a brief moment – in Wales for the men and at Wembley for the women – it appeared to be happening.
But of course, these being teams with an abundance of English players, it was probably pre-ordained for things not to last beyond the quarter-finals.  And in the men’s case the exit just had to come via penalties.
Admittedly, when the women fell to Canada and the men followed one night later, it didn't deliver a blow quite as hard as when England exited the Euros in June.  But I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a feeling that something had just ended, the like of which I'm unlikely to see again.  I began to curse myself for not having had the foresight to apply for tickets.  Or even make an attempt to watch the pre-tournament warm-up at The Riverside where spaces were plentiful - but it takes a lot to tempt me to Middlesbrough.
Such feelings that I'd missed out on something unique were reinforced recently when, despite players of both sexes professing their desire to repeat the Olympic experience, the FA moved swiftly to rule out any prospect of a Men’s football team in Rio, while at the same time saying it’s “unlikely” there’ll be a women’s  one either.  Such a shame.
Some feel football has no part in the Olympics but the crowds for games at London 2012 would perhaps suggest otherwise.  And you can just imagine what they'll be like in Brazil!
Still, I shan't let the passing of one moment in history cloud plenty of other far more uplifting ones.  And as thoughts turn to another season on the domestic front, thankfully my abiding memories of this summer will be of two weeks in which the streets of London really were paved with gold. 
As for those other images - of Young, Cole and Sturridge missing penalties - well, they have already been gloriously erased...for now.

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