Parisians are looking to French athletes to make up for the city’s heartache after losing the 2012 Games to London
There was a time when the French had very little good to say about London hosting the Olympics. That was when they were looking over the Channel with jealous eyes after the British capital beat Paris for the 2012 Summer Games.
Today, with France riding high in the medals table behind China and the United States, and the nation overtaken by patriotism over its dramatic swimming golds, the anguish and recriminations appear to have passed.
Visiting the London Olympics on Monday, the French president François Hollande said, with no little hint of admiration, that he had “seen what the London organisers were capable of”.
Speaking of whether Paris would bid for the 2024 Games, he added: “It must be the sporting world that takes the lead, and then the politicians, the stage must support them. I hope it will be possible but frankly … any bid we make must absolutely be successful.”
On 6 July 2005, hundreds had gathered at the Hotel de Ville in Paris under grey skies to hear their city declared host of the 2012 Olympic Games. Instead, rain clouds had opened and the crowds had wept.
The word “London” had fallen like an impossible thunderbolt. Like the end of a love affair, it had caused anger, bitterness, sadness and the eternal question: why? Why London? Why not Paris?
Today, seven years on, Parisians are still no nearer knowing why, but seem to have got over it. The snarkiness that accompanied press reporting before the Olympics – and not only on one side of the Channel – seemed to evaporate with the opening ceremony.
Danny Boyle’s extravaganza may have baffled our neighbours in parts, but was received with almost unprecedented acclaim as being original, imaginative, offbeat, humorous and “so British”.
Outside the Hotel de Ville, just before the start of the Games, Parisian Carole Coquillard, 37, a civil servant and tax inspector insisted: “I’m not disappointed Paris lost the Games. I think it would have cost us too much, and we’re not exactly in the best position to be funding a project like the Olympics.”
She paused to gather her argument: “I’m actually not sure that having the Olympics is all that good for a city. It’s a huge investment, and it can be kind of sad to see years later when all the infrastructure isn’t properly maintained. Considering the state of our finances and economy right now, I’m not sure we’d be up to the task.”
She sounded as if she were trying to convince someone, possibly herself. “Plus, now we don’t have to worry about all the crowds,” she added.
Coquillard pointed out London is just a short train journey away and foreign tourists coming to London are expected to include the French capital in their itinerary, boosting tourism. The Channel town of Calais has also successfully sold itself as a training base for Olympic teams.
“We may have lost the Olympics, but maybe we came out winners in the end. We have none of the inconveniences and all of the advantages,” she flourished as a trump card.
Norman Lemay, 26, said he planned to watch the Olympics from the British capital where he has family. “I saw the Olympic installation in London, and it’s really impressive. It looks like they’ll do a great job. It looked well organised,” he said.
“I think it’s great for London, but also for the French, who can go there and see a different perspective of things. They’ll get to breathe a little, see another culture and language.”
Lemay, a product manager for Yves Saint Laurent menswear, said he often travels to London for fashion ideas. “There’s going to be a lot of movement, and it’ll be really beneficial for the whole region.”
Back in 2005, the atmosphere outside the Hotel de Ville was altogether different.
Then, Alan, an unemployed 58-year-old Parisian, had unfolded a hastily written banner reading: London 2012 Lobbying Gold Medal. “Lobbying is not a French sport,” he said.
Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, who had invested great personal energy into his city’s bid, was devastated. It was the third time the IOC had turned down a Paris bid after 1992 and 2008.
He accused London’s bid team of breaking the rules and spirit of the Games. “We lost because we played fair,” he said at the time.
Today, the Paris tourist board has instigated a “Celebrate Your Victories in Style” award, offering an all-expenses paid trip to the French capital to two Britons for every British gold medal.
“We are really anxious to show that we are happy that the Olympic Games are taking place in the UK,” Jean-Pierre Blat, the tourism body’s head, said in an interview in Paris.
Blat is still upset by what he saw as the “very arrogant, very pretentious” French reaction to London’s victory in 2005, especially the headline in one paper that read: “Olympic Games: 2 hours, 45 minutes from Paris”.
“I really suffered from the French reaction. We don’t know to what extent it gave a bad impression, and I know the French – they’re not like that,” Blat said.
There was perhaps a hint of schadenfreude in the French media’s rehashing of a Sun report claiming the rubbish London weather could mean female beach volleyball teams abandoning their bikinis (replacing them, it noted with just a soupçon of glee, with “tights and long-sleeved T-shirts”) or frequent mentions of “London’s achilles heel”, its congested public transport system.
But most Parisians appear to have got over their heartache after losing the Games and there is a sense of vicarious excitement in the French capital.
Hélène Stahlberger, 23, a student, said she could not afford to travel to London but was feeling optimistic. “Maybe we’ll be the ones who get it next time,” she said cheerfully.
Paris is widely expected to launch a bid for the 2024 Olympics, which marks the 100th anniversary of the French capital’s last Games.
For now, care home manager Steven Sonder hopes French Olympic athletes will make up for the disappointment of Paris losing the 2012 Games.
“As long as we win more medals than the British then I’ll be happy,” he told France 24 television. “And I think we will.”
As president Hollande visited the gold-medal winning French swimmers on Monday, the French were hoping that having lost the venue battle, they would win the medal war.
While Sebastian Coe patiently fends off awkward questions, perhaps he really wants to shout: ‘This is how things are – these seats belong to sponsors and administrators, not the public’
So. You saw some empty Olympic seats on the television. Perhaps you read about them in the newspaper. Was it a terrible, terrible shock? Perhaps a cup of weak tea with lots of sugar may help. Or a lie-down. Or maybe you could unleash a cathartically furious series of tweets based on a vague sense of exclusion and unfairness, a vision of some buffet-gorging elite hoarding the cream like feudal sporting overlords, or investment bankers, or MPs who claim excessive expenses. Yes, the evidence suggests this definitely seems to help a little bit.
Perhaps it might also be useful to make a list of some of the other things most people in Britain don’t have, besides front-row VIP Olympic seats. Like a high-ranking job in the corporate department of Coca Cola, or an executive position on the board of a national athletics body, or a massive triple cheeseburger the size of a small motorhome. Or, come to think of it, any real idea how these kind of portable global sporting superstructures function during the fortnight or so every four years when – at the end of a vast programme of infrastructure back-scratch, corporate glad-handing and unceasing sponsorial suck-up – a series of sporting events are staged in seated arenas.
Of course, the empty front-row seat is a terrible thing. But it is also in no sense a surprise. Personally, I dislike what the Olympics has become in the past 30 years. Growing up with athletics in the family I have a vision of the perfect Olympics – one that has probably never existed – nourished by whispered stories of the Olympic movement, of the purity of competition, of the brotherhood of nations, of athletes sleeping three to a room then getting up off the floor and breaking a national record.
Given a unilateral free hand I would strip all sponsorship, all corporate interest, all sense of opaque executive governance from the Olympics. Not to mention ejecting all sports who refuse to get on their knees and beg to be part of the Games driven by nothing more than pure competitive zeal. Let them run, cycle, leap and swim in whatever we can provide. A third-rate arena, a municipal swimming pool, a tarted-up Crystal Palace is better than a temporary splendo-drome with McDonald’s on the front. Make it a school sports day. Eradicate money and marketing from the Olympic haemoglobin. Let it stand as a pure ideal, on the principle that if you refuse to build it, they will still come.
Sounds pretty silly doesn’t it? Unrealistic. Naive. Unworkable. And definitely not the real world, because of course the real world contains a far more complex system of competing interests. So far while dealing with empty seats Sebastian Coe has had the air of a patient headmaster fending off a series of precociously misguided questions from the lower sixth. It isn’t hard to see what he really wants to say. Perhaps what he wants to shout out, standing at his lectern biting his tongue, is: “This is simply the way it is. Those seats have been paid for by sponsors, or allocated to administrative VIPs. They are the property not of the public, but of assorted structures that effectively own this self-supporting beano.”
Maybe he wants to say: “We would not have an Olympics – or at least this kind of Olympics, the actual Olympics – without junkets and favours and a certain slack for those who wield power, favours such as having a seat you may or may not wish to fill every minute of competition.” That VIPs and corporate guests will often scoot from event to event, because they can, or turn up or not at all at a moment’s notice. He wants to say that while the public may believe this is their Games and that they should have universal access, they just don’t, just as the public don’t have access to so many of life’s rarefied circles.
This is our world. We have accepted it, voted it in, actively taken part in it, taken what we can from it. And yes, we still protest about unfairness when we can see it, when it looks like a nice padded seat in the front row of what are suddenly supposed to be the egalitarian Games.
Plus Coe also wants to say that there are many people out there who don’t actually want to fill those seats personally, but who are keen to denigrate the London Games, to gloss it with their own agenda. On Monday a photo that I tweeted from the weightlifting at the ExCeL showing banks of unfilled VIP seats was used on Sky Sports News as part of a story on empty seats. And of course, Sky love the empty seats. For a start it’s an Olympic story they can actually cover. But mainly the Olympics is a terrible problem for Sky, an A-list event of annihilating gravity to which they have no access. So the empty seats are a godsend. Sky aren’t there: so it must be crap. It is an obvious subtext, but one that is worth bearing in mind all the same.
There is also something illuminating in the paradox of Sky running a piece on corporate-overload in sport, Sky suggesting that sport has in some way been taken away from the people, sand-blasted with money and vested interests. And yet, in a way why not. The Olympics doesn’t exist in isolation. Like the disposable £29m feeding trough constructed next to the stadium to wring the last few cents of the hospitality dollar, the empty seats are part of a wider culture.
This is a systemic failing, not an organisational one, a symptom not just of how the Olympics is, but simply of how things are. Just as the first-class section is never really full and the wealthy tend to have at least two homes, those empty padded seats are pretty much inevitable. They were there in Beijing and they will be there in Rio. Welcome to our entirely unsurprising Olympics.
The USA team may have lost their most eye-catching pair of rowers, but the return of coach Mike Teti has worked wonders
Surging with power yet delicately graceful, the two crews – one from Harvard, the other the Dutch Olympic team – compete under the overcast, dark blue and grey sky for first place at the Royal Henley Regatta. Harvard lags behind the Dutch by half a boat. The camera focuses on one of the Winklevoss twins, both of whom row for Harvard; his face twists from pain, but he remains resolute. Ultimately they lose.
This scene recreated in Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network made Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the twins who claimed in court in 2004 that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook, the most widely recognisable rowers in the US.
In December 2011, the year after the movie was released and shortly after the real-life twins took a $65m settlement from Facebook, the Winklevoss twins, who have come to be known as the Winklevii, decided not to try out for the London 2012 Olympic games. And as a result, US rowing lost its first celebrity athletes.
The Winklevoss twins started rowing when they were 14 and soon founded a rowing club at their high school. They were both accepted to Harvard and rowed all four years in college, leading their crew to first place at the 2004 Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta, the national championship for men.
In 2009, they both started studying business at the University of Oxford, where they rowed in the varsity eight, and graduated in 2010. Until December 2011, they had been rowing out of the Olympic training camp in San Diego, and it looked as though they had every intention to compete again.
Were the Winklevoss twins to have attended the London Olympics, the American public would have had rowers for whom to root. But rowing in the US does not compare in popularity to basketball, track, or swimming. It remains a sport of the empire and, in the US, of the elite. When the twins left, US rowing lost its most well-known athletes.
Instead, the twins started a venture capital firm called Winklevoss Capital, which funds start-ups hoping to encourage technical innovation, much like the social networking site they envisioned while they were at Harvard.
The Winklevii were pop culture celebrities in a sport that, in the US, hasn’t had them. But even though the twins are gone, US rowing won’t suffer. The twins are solid rowers and Olympians, but in a field of 14 boats, they placed sixth. They were not medal contenders, and at 30 years old were unlikely to win big. Better to watch the men’s eight, guest starring the legendary coach, Mike Teti, or the women’s eight, whose team is steered by three-time Olympian Mary Whipple, who took home gold from Beijing and silver from Athens.
There’s also Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot, the women’s pair who on Saturday advanced straight to Wednesday’s finals. And, of course, there is the flagship boat of the men’s crew: the eight coached by Teti and coxed by Zach Vlahos. The two know each other from their years at the University of California, Berkeley, where Vlahos coxed a boat that won one national and one league title.
From 1920 to 1956, the USA were dominant in the men’s eight category, winning every final. They missed in 1960, but came back in 1964 to reclaim gold. For the next 40 years the USA struggled, failing to capture gold until 2004 when Teti started coaching the men’s eight. That year they won gold and broke the dry spell. In 2008, still under the direction of Teti, the team won bronze. After that Olympics, Teti left the national team to coach the men’s crew at Berkeley, and the USA men’s team hit a rough patch.
After the men’s eight failed to qualify last summer for London 2012, Teti was brought back to coach the eight, while still maintaining his coaching job at Berkeley, and Vlahos, who has long had Olympic ambitions, asked to try out. Teti agreed. The day the boat was announced, the chosen rowers put their heads together and decided Vlahos, 23, would be their coxswain. It’s a choice, Teti said, that he’s never put in his rowers’ hands before.
In the men’s eight, Vlahos is the most junior in terms of age and experience, but it’s clear he’s got the stuff to win. In late May, with one last shot at qualifying for the Olympics, the team, with Vlahos at the helm, placed first, earned their spot and turned their focus to Olympic gold.
Last Saturday, the first day of the London 2012, the USA men’s eight placed first in its heat, automatically qualifying them for the final. Germany placed first in the second heat. The British came first in the repechage, followed by Canada, the Netherlands and Australia, all of whom qualified for the final.
Germany and Great Britain will be the men’s eight’s stiffest competition, and given Germany’s recent dominance and Great Britain’s home-turf advantage, the USA have their work cut out to get gold. Silver is more likely. Whatever happens, rowing’s day is coming in the US and it’s because of athletes like Vlahos and the legend that is Teti. Their names are not necessarily the first that spring to mind when you think of US rowing, but if fame were measured according to merit, they would be.
The sculler Hamadou Djibo Issaka, who took up the sport only last November in a land without a single rowing boat, has been capturing the hearts of spectators at the Olympics
As rowing backwaters go, Niger has to be right up there. Tap water is not exactly easy to find in the Sahara, never mind state-of-the-art lakes. Hence the acclaim for Hamadou Djibo Issaka, the sub-Saharan sculler, who has been capturing the hearts of spectators at Eton Dorney. For someone who was only persuaded to take up rowing last November, he has done his country proud simply by taking part.
It now emerges there is not a single rowing boat in Niger, a sizeable landlocked slab of West Africa bordered by Algeria, Libya, Burkino Faso, Mali, Chad, Nigeria and Benin. Officials from the country are hopeful that four boats will arrive next month, insisting the 35-year-old Djibo Issaka has “potential” to improve significantly. “We have rivers and we have lakes,” said Ahmadou Youssoufou, a member of Niger’s national Olympic committee. “We think we have a real potential to do this sport in our country.” It is impossible not to salute his optimism.
Then again, the people of Niger are accustomed to battling against the odds. Niger may be the 22nd-largest country in the world – it is almost twice the size of Texas – but more than 80% of its land area is covered by the Sahara. Its inhabitants are more familiar with the Erg of Bilma, a so-called “sea of dunes”, than ergometers. Droughts and desertification are a way of life and the literacy rate among the 15 million-strong population is among the lowest in the world at less than 30%.
The UN, consequently, rates it among the world’s least-developed nations. Its main export, uranium, has been hit by falling prices and potential oil and gold-mining wealth has yet to be realised. Since independence in 1960, there has also been considerable political instability, with the most recent military coup having occurred in 2010.
Slavery was only officially abolished in 2003 – human rights organisations continue to have concerns – and there are prospect of global warming extending the Sahara’s spread still further. The nation’s sporting achievements, unsurprisingly, have been somewhat limited. Their six-strong team at these Games include a 14-year-old swimmer, Nafissatou Moussa Adamou, but the only Olympic medal in their history was won by the boxer Issaka Daborg in the light-welterweight division in Munich in 1972. Football is the country’s No1 sport but they have yet to qualify for a World Cup.
No wonder Djibo Issaka has looked nonplussed at the attention he is receiving. A mere three-month stint of pre-Games training in Egypt, Tunisia and Belgium was deemed sufficient to prepare the divorced father of two, after he was awarded a wildcard courtesy of an IOC programme aimed at developing sports beyond their traditional boundaries. A gardener by profession, he picked up some of his aquatic knowledge by working at a children’s swimming pool. He had only previously seen rowing on the television.
He still has one more race to go, the classification final on Friday, before he can take a breather. “I have no technique, I only have strength,” he sighed this week. Niger’s officials insist otherwise. “In the next Games Hamadou will be stronger and faster,” insisted Youssoufou. Will he really be back again at Rio in 2016? Millions will be hoping so.
Canoeing, handball, archery, weightlifting – the Olympics revels in more unfamiliar sporting events. Which sports and disciplines have caught your eye which you didn’t expect?
One of the singular joys of the Olympics is the opportunity to follow sports, disciplines and events that don’t ordinarily capture the public attention or attract media coverage . A pub in south London on Saturday afternoon was filled with regulars happily cheering on the Team GB handball team, despite most present happily admitting they had little idea as to the rules. This is hardly surprising – handball has very limited following and participation in the UK – but didn’t stop the pub’s punters from keenly following the action.
Guardian readers active on our commenting threads have been expressing similar thoughts.
lancaster43 summed up the appeal thus:
I’m particularly enjoying how quickly my expert armchair punditry has returned on watching sports that I haven’t seen for four years.
Tutting sagely as canoeists clatter into the hanging down poles having obviously taken the wrong line, shaking head ruefully at bad set up play or bad blocking in the volleyball, exasperation at the use of the incorrect spin on the serve in the table tennis, laughable long range shooting, instead of working the opening, in the water polo.
And Spacedone posted this on our daily Olympic live blog:
One thing about the Olympics, you find yourself cheering on a sport you’ve never watched in your life. I’m currently enjoying the Men’s Canoe Double. Looks very tricky.
What do you think? Which less familiar sports or events have caught your attention at London 2012 so far? Let us know in the comment box below.