Reporters are issued with a backstage pass to the world. They peek behind the scenery and the facades of art, politics, war or sport. They see the players in these various pageants without greasepaint and often lit in unflattering ways. Much of the mystery that woos the world on the other side of the limelight has its magic stripped away when the smoke and mirrors are in the reporter’s line of sight.
It is not surprising that cynicism is a common by-product of the access-all-areas world journalists inhabit.
It is a cumulative process, too: sufficient exposure can make even the extraordinary seem routine. Sports reporters more than most experience a cycle of events: football seasons; World Cups; Olympics – all with dates inked on calendars far in advance. After a while, even genuine expressions of delight at a sporting performance can seem forced; cynical curmudgeonliness is the path of least resistance. The venality that surrounds the Olympic movement makes this especially easy.
So let this not be considered a small thing: last night in London’s Olympic Stadium I saw a man I have known for 20 years, a hardened sports hack, a doyen of his trade, a man renowned for his “gloryschmertz”, an observer fiercely proud of his aloof neutrality in the most partisan of atmospheres, this man I saw leap to his feet and clench his fists and roar Mo Farah down the back straight to win the 10,000m. And my friend is not even British.
Given the steep rake of the reporters’ seating in the stadium, I only saw him break the habits of a lifetime because I, too, was on my feet and similarly straining to bring Farah home with every decibel at my command. But I am a news reporter who only occasionally dabbles like a dilettante in sport – a couple of Olympics, the odd World Cup – whereas he is a pro. When I recounted the scene to another colleague an hour later in the main press centre, he at first refused to believe me and when I insisted, he finally said: “Well, I never! That really is something else.”
It was. Last night in the Olympic stadium was something else, a cauldron of noise, adrenaline and emotion that created a potion strong enough to melt the iron shell of my old friend.
There is an axiom among veterans, which I first heard from another white-haired reporter attending his 21st games, that for an Olympics to succeed as a whole, the home country must do well in the medals table. At the very least, it must exceed its own expectations.
Given the British habit of playing down any chance of victory in anything – in the superstitious hope that this will actually make it more likely – and given that most hosting nations would rather prepare themselves for the snippy criticism of the outside world by getting their sniping in first, exceeding our own expectations has not proved hard.
However, just as cynicism in a reporter is a debit, so is enthusiasm. Now is the moment for some perspective. This is shaping into one hell of an Olympics. Michael Phelps, who has been around a bit, told a colleague of mine last night that this was the best games he or any of his coaches or teammates had attended.
But it must not become a British games. If it is going to be a truly great games, we must all embrace more than just the Union flag.
We have invited 204 guests to this party. Obviously, basic courtesy dictates that we do not ignore them, but it is vital that we go much further. We have to remember that it is their party, not ours. We are left with the hangover when they go home.
Brits may have a smile on their face while they sweep the floor and fill the recycling bins on Monday week, but let it be a smile of remembering what we learned from this world on our doorstep, not what we taught it.
Like my old friend, you are never too old to change your ways.