Ladybird’s Olympic legacy

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While we dissect how wonderful London 2012 was from the chilly vantage point of January, there are no doubt many publishers licking their chapped lips. To accompany the multitudes of promotional, commemorative collections hastily slug on the shelves are the blockbuster autobiographies of the all-conquering athletes. Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie and Tom Daley are among those quick out of the blocks to share their stories, filling many a stocking. None of them are likely to rival their sporting triumphs in their lists of achievements.

But are these hastily cobbled books really a bad thing? Not everybody gets into reading by devouring Tolkien, hiding a torch under their duvet to finish the last chapter of Harry Potter or cuddling up to The Gruffalo. Sometimes a decidedly shoddy book can have a huge impact, such as the one discovered in my parents’ loft last month when retrieving the Christmas decorations.

It was 1996. A mobile library pulled up outside my primary school. I climbed its three steps casually and entered the van with little anticipation of what treasure I would find within.

It wasn’t even a story, let alone a novel. Just 53 pages long. Ladybird’s Olympic 96 book, complete with a “fantastic foldout of Atlanta”. Fantastic indeed. Inside I learned, in one paragraph, of the genius of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. I discovered that Atlanta is the state capital of Georgia. I found out the yachting events would be held at the Yachting Marina, which seemed very apt. WHATIZIT, the exquisitely named official mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games, was eager to supply all manner of juicy information.

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Further inside were single pages devoted to each Olympic sport, with descriptions of the discipline and its leading lights, plus – crucially – space within which to name the winner of each event. I filled them in with religious fervour. I recorded Yelena Nicolayeva’s victory in the 10 kilometre walk; I jotted down Balasz Kiss’s hammer win for Hungary; my pen was on the verge of running out as L Flessel triumphed in the individual foil fencing.

Aged nine, my parents didn’t allow me to watch most of these events take place live and even yours truly may have flagged during the weightlifting qualification rounds. Many of the winners’ names were furiously scribbled via Teletext. The long names of Ukraine’s medalling gymnasts proved too fast for my hand, resulting in several laps around the information retrieval service’s infuriating scrolling system.

Nevertheless, judiciously jotting the Olympic results down left an impression greater than the heroics of the standout athletes in Atlantic – even Michael Johnson achieving the 200m/400m double. The book ingrained a passion for sports stats that has since thrived in football, cricket and baseball, as well as a love of books. The next time the mobile library came around, I checked out The Hobbit, amongst others and was soon well on the way to filling my first bookshelves.

You could look up who won all of those 1996 Olympic medals on Wikipedia in about eight seconds now. But tracing their names with my finger in the old Ladybird hardback, their glories come to life far more vividly than on a laptop screen. There will be many legacies of London 2012. Let’s hope one of them, by hook or by crook or by terrible Tom Daley memoir, is somebody getting into books.

Torchure

Only the British could greet a child, enjoying the a once-in-a-lifetime chance to carry the Olympic Torch, with the heckle “Can’t you slow down a bit?”

Yesterday I joined the millions who have stood diligently in line at the side of roads across the nation waiting for an elaborate lighter to pass by in a convoy of corporate vans. It was brilliant.

The denizens of North London’s middle-class values happily waved their sponsor flags and glugged down ‘fun-size’ bottles of Coke Zero (they don’t waste the good stuff on freebies). LOGOC’s enforcers sternly removed all non-official bunting and balloons – Olympic fun is a strictly defined concept with very distinct boundaries. These definitely do not extend to cycling shops making the Olympic Rings out of five inner tubes, no matter how well Bradley Wiggins and co have done over in France.

Yet more well-wishers perched on balconies and rooftops, while the pub on the corner overflowed from every window as the crowds jostled for a better vantage point. Everyone knew what we were waiting for – the Torch has been on the news every day and you can even monitor its progress online as it travels the length and breadth of Britain like a very unfunny Eddie Izzard. But still, people waved at every passing van and a girl on a bike got a sizeable cheer as she passed with her Whole Foods Market shopping.

The idiosyncrasies of Britain’s particular take on the Torch procession reached a new high when the traffic lights stopped a Range Rover blaring out Jay-Z and Alicia Keys ode to their hometown, Empire State of Mind. More people joined in to celebrate that other “concrete jungle where dreams are made true” and “there’s nothing you can’t do” than did when an overenthusiastic guy in a Team GB vest atop a bus urged everyone to “make some noise”.

A youngster to my left mistakenly believed he was waiting for David Beckham himself to jog up Green Lanes carrying the flame. No such luck. It was actually a young lad who was, as the aforementioned heckler suggested, going at quite a lick.

Grumbles abounded: we had waited for the best part of an hour and the thrill only lasted the lesser part of a minute. It was how I imagine waiting for a ride at Alton Towers would be, if I ever had the inclination. Another kid was unimpressed. “I could do that. I could make a flame, and make a fire, and run down the road and everyone would see, and it would be cool, and I would be the best at it.” His bored dad sank some more Olympic Spirit (5.2%) and nodded in agreement.

At the gates of Clissold Park, two ladies were dressed as giant butterflies. They looked relatively subtle in comparison to the Olympic juggernaut that had just passed. Now all eyes turn to the Opening Ceremony on Friday, and a unique opportunity to be underwhelmed again, and revel in it. Can’t wait.

Image by davehighbury on Flickr