When our former governor walked back his negative remarks about pre-Olympics preparations by saying all would be well once the athletes arrived on the scene, it seemed to me that he was overlooking something.
Several days later, when my family arrived in London to attend the games, I figured out what that was – the British people. For the next week, besides giving us the thrill of seeing the magnificent Olympic spectacle first hand, our time in London also afforded a view of the effort put forth by the British to make the games happen, and the pride they took in making the games a success.
When we landed at Heathrow, we were greeted warmly by our British hosts – but no surprise there, as they are long-time friends who have done this for us time and again over the years. Our first clue to this massive undertaking came the following day, when we emerged from our train in central London and were greeted by police officers and volunteers in the station.
They saw we were clearly visitors, sought us out, helped us find our way, exchanged pleasantries, and even posed for a picture. The encounter immediately put us at ease – a feeling that continued as we walked through the station and beyond.
Throughout the week, the police, volunteers, military personnel, transit and event staff, and even complete strangers, were competent and unfailingly friendly and helpful at every turn. One day in Leicester square I spoke with a worker who said she had volunteered the equivalent of about 20 days in the past year working at the games themselves and seeing to training and other preparatory work. She, and thousands of other Britons, cheerfully handed out maps, answered questions, and guided us with foam fingers, kind words, and engaging humor. Police and military did their job and more – they provided a presence that made us feel safe, but also took the time to say hello and make us feel welcome at their games, in their country.
Were the games perfect? Of course not – there were the problems with ticketing, slowdowns in business for London shop keepers, and pictures of Mayor Boris Johnson stuck on the zip line. But the more worrying concerns about security threats and transportation gridlock never materialized, and our own experience at the games was overwhelmingly positive.
Will hosting the games somehow transform Great Britain (or London, or Stratford) in the long run? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s not the point. London won the bid to host the games, and with the help of tens of thousands of Britons, they delivered on that promise.
As we were preparing to leave for home, I sat with one of our hosts and we reflected on what we liked best about the games. For me, right alongside the many larger-than-life sporting moments were the daily one-on-one encounters and conversations that made the week special. For him, the best part was knowing that the British had gotten it right. That they did, and they should be proud.