Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gold-medal grumpies

Its almost a  year since we arrived in Chicago and I'm still constantly reminded of the differences between America and Britain. With the arrival of the Olympics in London, I've been unable to avoid reaching the conclusion that there is a fundamental difference in personality between British and Americans. My former boss at The Economist, and a veteran of one foreign posting, had packed me off with this advice about Americans, "don't make the mistake of thinking they are like us because they speak the same language". He added that it would help for me to "imagine them as Germans".

I knew exactly what he meant.

Not that Americans are in any way like Germans but I needed to constantly remind myself that I was living among aliens if I was not going to trip up by assuming that Americans are just like me. But one of the big tip-offs about our difference in personality was that every American who raises the subject of the Olympics wishes to offer their condolences to me for missing the London 2012 event. And that is because, in their wonderful way, few Americans can spontaneously imagine that anyone would not be thrilled by the presence of a major world sporting event in their nearby vicinity. They are simply not wired in a way that would allow them to realise that the citizens of London and its nearby counties might be aghast, fearful and downright grumpy about the 2012 Olympics.

Now, imagine for a moment  if the Olympics were taking place in any major American city today. The entire city would be whipped up into an orgy of Olympic enthusiasm. Parents, office workers and school children would be eagerly volunteering, applying for tickets, and making plans to attend. Committees would be set up to host Olympic parties in parks, on the beach, in neighbourhoods. Schools would be hosting Olympic-theme days. Restaurants and businesses would be decked out and everyone would take up the event with enthusiasm and gusto. Anyone who failed to get tickets would simply organise an overflow party in a nearby public place. No-one's enthusiasm would be dampened by anything.

In short, it would be just the kind of orgy of enthusiasm and gusto that makes most British reach for the travel-sickness bag. Now I'm obviously not in London at the moment so cannot attest to the reaction on the ground at the moment (and we Brits do quite like to be dragged along to a party at the last minute like reluctant wallflowers) but even a year ago the irritation at the Olympics was palpable. Everyone was making plans to go on holiday during August; refugees, if you like, from sport. The clever ones had even let their apartments to visitors from abroad. Many complained that the tube would be hot and crowded, it would be impossible to get a taxi, a table at a good restaurant and travel through London would be even more difficult than usual. Moan, moan, moan.

It isn't that the British don't like sport, its that we do not like it as much as Americans (crikey, they really, really, really like sport here), and any interest we do have is rather overwhelmed by our dislike of large numbers of people, crowds and idiot dawdling tourists--all of which are expected in abundance this August.

I think it is safe to say that for Olympic officials the cat must finally be out of the bag. Yes London is a great city, possibly one of the greatest cities on the planet, and it really is quite a good place to hold a big sporting event. But the idea that the grumpy, irritable and overcrowded British are going to welcome the Olympics with open arms was always something of a stretch. The crowded south-east of England gets a gold medal for grumpiness.