The Olympic Experience: One Journo's Take on the Games in London

'London Old and New' (Illustration: B. Kitch)
We're all going through it–that feeling of post-Olympics blues. There's no denying it, nor can you deny that this was one of the best sporting spectacles of the modern era. Case in point: it was the most-watched sporting event in U.S. history, according to NBC. What was it that made it so great? From a rowing perspective, I have a few thoughts on the matter.

Time and Place
The sport of rowing, as we know it, has its roots on the Thames, in London. The Doggett's Coat and Badge race, which dates back to 1715, is contested over a 4 mile, 5 furlong course running from London Bridge (not to be confused with Tower Bridge) to Cadogian Pier. The contestants are Thames Watermen, who, before the proliferation of river crossings in London, were the main source of transportation across the Thames. The racing shells? Originally, these were the very boats used to take passengers from one side of the river to the other.

Also, just upriver from Eton is Henley-on-Thames–arguably the Mecca of international rowing, and, without question, a unique experience in the rowing world. Henley Royal Regatta dates to 1839, and has been held continuously ever since, with the exception of the two World Wars.

While the U.K. was enduring one of the rainiest summers on record prior to the Games, the weather cleared for much of the Olympics, and, to paraphrase London Mayor Boris Johnson (who is a very thoughtful and entertaining writer, and, naturally, a classicist), are we to be undone by a spot of rain? Never.

So, London 2012 had both time and place in its corner–the historical birthplace of our concept of rowing (yes, I know there is a rowing race that takes place in the Aeneid, and that they had competitions between triremes as a part of the Panathenaic Festival in Athens some 2,500 years ago, but when was the last time you rowed on a boat with three levels of oars?), with, as Mayor Johnson predicted, "a classic English late July," with beautiful clouds, a rainstorm or two, and wonderful, warm and sunny intervals.

The Pinnacle of our Sport
There are some Olympic sports that, while it is important that they be included in the program, don't have the same draw for the spectator. The reason? The Olympics are meant to be the pinnacle of sport–the highest level of competition in any given discipline–and while Olympic basketball is certainly entertaining, you don't see games like Team USA v. Nigeria in the NBA (final score: 156-73). Rowing at London 2012, however, saw the best of the best putting everything on the line–truly the highest level of our sport, with all the dramatic finishes, fantastic stories, and record-breaking performances to back that claim.

Team GB lived up to the hype. From their first gold medal, thanks to Sporting Giants' graduate Helen Glover and Heather Stanning of the British Army, in the women's pair (the first-ever gold medal for GB Rowing on the women's side), to the excellent performance of their lightweights, the dramatic men's eight final (in which the GB crew clearly risked all for a chance at gold–a decision that nearly cost them a podium finish), to the crowning achievement of their men's four amid all the hype and controversy surrounding the lineup and the emergence of the Australian crew built around Drew Ginn, the 2012 GB Rowing squad performed better than any of their predecessors, racking up nine medals (four of them gold).

Team USA
For Team USA, the results were strong, but desperately close to excellent. While the U.S. team walked away with three medals (two on the women's side, one for the men), they were just 0.5 seconds away from two more. The women's pair of Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot outperformed expectations and ended up just 0.2 seconds away from a bronze medal behind double world champs New Zealand, and the men's eight final was one of the most difficult to watch, for personal reasons. That said, I couldn't have felt prouder of the crew and what they accomplished.

Having friends in any lineup makes a reporter's job a little more complicated. In this case, however, writing the story of the men's eight, as I did as part of my Olympics double-feature for Rowing News, was an honor. Without giving away too much from the article, suffice it to say that what they achieved had everything to do with the very best aspects of the Olympic spirit, of representing themselves and their country, and of truly giving everything they had despite disadvantages and early deficits. San Francisco Chronicle writer Scott Ostler published a nice piece about them, entitled, ''Rocky' rowers make it a fight,' which has now been posted to

London Life
The City of London absolutely delivered for the Games. I've never been to an Olympic Games in the past, but I must say that, as someone who lived in London for a time, the travel and logistics were as painless as could be during the Olympics, thanks in no small part to the hard work of everyone involved with the Games, from the organizers to the volunteers. London was not overwhelmed by the Games–indeed, in a city with such a rich, cosmopolitan history, how could it be? Rather, the city and the people took it in stride, and made it, as they had hoped, a friendly Games.

Getting the chance to see friends after their competition came to a close was a fantastic way to finish the trip. There is so much to see and do in London–indeed, in the words of Dr. Samuel Johnson (whose home at Gough Square I visited along with Iain Weir), "...when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." The reception of rowers in London is also quite different from that at home. Walking around with Steve was more like walking around with an NBA basketball player in the U.S.–the Brits do know and love their rowing. (Also, it didn't hurt that Steve was, more than once, mistaken for Michael Phelps–initially he tried to deny it, but his attempts to do so were universally met with the questionable logic that only the true Michael Phelps would deny that he were Michael Phelps.)

Next up: Rio
As has been pointed out by classicists and ancient Olympic Games enthusiasts alike, one of the key differences between the modern and ancient festivals is that each one of the modern events represents a microcosm of the host society, frozen, in a way, in time. That is, when we look back at the posters, the merchandise, the logos, the venues, and the experience of London 2012 years from now, it will have a clear bearing on that exact moment in history. The Ancient Games, by contrast, represented hundreds of years of an athletics-based religious festival, with the prime example being the altar of Zeus at its heart–a massive mound of ash built from generations of sacrificial offerings and feasting–that was in itself a symbol of continuity and ongoing, shared tradition (you can read about it in Pausanius' discussion of Olympia in his Description of Greece, published in the second century AD).

Following the amazing spectacle that Beijing provided, London knew that the challenge of putting on an outstanding Games would be considerable. But London did not fail. The Games were a triumph, and, in keeping with the modern conception of the Olympics, they were also a celebration of contemporary British-ness at its best. Rio will be a whole new ballgame, and now, it's less than four years away.


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