David Owen

The City of London Corporation has kindly invited me to a reception marking the 10th anniversary of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

This got me spooling through my memories of an enthralling, enchanting and entrancing couple of weeks.

I must say I have found this a bitter-sweet process.

Everything was not quite as hunky dory as is sometimes portrayed.

As we now know, for example, doping was rife.

For the most part, however, this really was a sporting festival which showcased London - and to a degree Britain - at its best: open to the world and genuinely welcoming; outstandingly well-organised; and with our famed dry British sense of humour worn very much on the sleeve.

Hell, the Games even prompted outbreaks of conversation on the London Underground. Often when interlocutors were sober.

If you want to appreciate just how good London 2012 was, try scrolling through the Olympics that have followed: Sochi, Rio, Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Beijing - all flawed in their own ways, often for reasons far beyond the capacity of the poor organisers to do anything about, bar managing their way through as best they could.

This month marks 10 years since the London 2012 Olympic Games began ©Getty Images
This month marks 10 years since the London 2012 Olympic Games began ©Getty Images

My personal London 2012 experience began, like most reporters, with Danny Boyle’s dazzling Opening Ceremony.

As a summation of Britain’s many parts, this was both surprisingly edgy and, I now realise, inclusive enough to contain something for everyone.

What, for example, could be more mainstream than the theatrical master-stroke which had Her Majesty the Queen appearing to parachute into the stadium accompanied by 007?

What makes these memories bittersweet is the sense of how far Britain has fallen over the subsequent decade.

I mean, if you were to devise a similar show for the past 10 years, what would it consist of exactly?

A Festival of Taking Back Control via departure from the European Union, the economic powerhouse on our doorstep?

A celebration of our get-tough immigration policies?

A routine by National Health Service nurses and doctors who are not dancing, but sleepwalking from exhaustion?

When I jotted down the moments from the subsequent two weeks which came first into my memory, I found they were not, on the whole, of gold medal-winning exploits or agonising near misses.

A stunt featuring "The Queen" proved a hit during the London 2012 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images
A stunt featuring "The Queen" proved a hit during the London 2012 Opening Ceremony ©Getty Images

Top of my personal list was the day spent with my wife and then 12-year-old daughter as a regular punter at the cross-country stage of the three-day event.

Cross-country is a discipline in which, despite the obvious potential hazards, spectators have traditionally been able to roam the course and take up vantage-points extremely close to the action.

I was delighted and a little surprised that this tradition was maintained at London 2012, with the help of cheerful but well-drilled squadrons of volunteers.

The Games did not inspire my daughter to take up equestrianism; she was already a keen rider.

But the day gave her a clear impression of what the pinnacle of the sport looks like.

Otherwise, the moments that have lodged most firmly in my mind are a mix of the quirky and historic.

The 82 seconds that it took 16-year-old Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani to be knocked out of the women’s heavyweight judo competition arguably warranted both these adjectives.

This was enough, after all, to make Shaherkani the first female athlete from the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to compete at an Olympic Games.

Women's boxing was on the Olympic programme for the first time at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Women's boxing was on the Olympic programme for the first time at London 2012 ©Getty Images

Another hugely significant moment in the history of women’s sport came at 1:30 in the afternoon of August 5 in the same cavernous East London exhibition centre.

This was when a North Korean flyweight called Kim Hye-song and her Russian opponent Elena Savelyeva became the first two female athletes to enter an Olympic boxing ring.

I must admit though that what I remember most clearly about that landmark session was the absolutely thunderous reception given later to Natasha Jonas, the first British woman boxer to climb through the ropes.

Another spine-tingling crowd reaction that has remained with me came at the Copper Box, less than two minutes into the Britain versus France handball clash.

This was the very definition of a mismatch, with handball a minority sport in Britain and France the reigning Olympic champions.

So there was a note of incredulity to the din when the red-shirted Brits astonishingly took the lead.

It was too good to last: the final score was 44-15 to France. 

Other experiences on my list include the transformation of Lord’s, perhaps my favourite sports stadium, into an archery venue and an absorbing men’s basketball final between the United States and Spain at the "North Greenwich Arena", Olympic-speak for the O2/Millennium Dome.

Michal Martikan won his fifth Olympic medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images
Michal Martikan won his fifth Olympic medal at London 2012 ©Getty Images

Like an ear-worm that lodges unbidden in your head, I have never been able to forget one particular piece of in-stadium commentary.

This came during the heats of the men’s C1 canoe slalom at the new Lee Valley White Water Centre in the North London suburbs.

An outstanding run by a Slovakian competitor called Michal Martikan was prefaced by a jaunty - and impeccably accurate - "If anyone can Martikan can".

There are circumstances in which I still mouth this phrase to goad myself to greater efforts.

As for humour, you just cannot beat the unintended cruelty of a yellow road-sign I bowled past on an official media bus en route for the final of the women’s 10 metres air rifle, the first medal event of the Games.

While we were making reasonable headway towards our destination, the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, south-east London, non-Olympic traffic seemed all but stationary.

Cue the road-sign, which read to my astonishment "Ha-Ha Road CLOSED".

Imagine crawling past that while caught up in an epic tailback which has made you late for a meeting.

As I discovered subsequently, Ha-Ha Road is the name of a street not far from the barracks.