One of the pleasures of being a journalist writing for a newspaper based in the host country of the Olympics is that other journalists see you as a potential source.
About half a dozen have asked me for quotes or basic information about various aspects of the games, or indeed of British life, in the past 10 days. Questions have ranged from why Britain doesn’t always play football as a single nation (a very good question that all the domestic football associations would probably rather wasn’t repeated too often), to what do we call those funny little bread things with holes running through them (crumpets).
Most recently, I was asked by a US correspondent if I thought the UK was becoming Americanised in its coverage of sport, and whether the entertainments provided at different venues to fill the time between action might be a sign of that process. A few minutes later, another American journalist asked why Brits have such an avid sporting rivalry with Australia. The latter question was one I didn’t enjoy answering at all. Honest.
But the main interest of overseas journalists centres on British reactions to being hosts of the games, and it’s easy to understand their confusion. Journalists abroad naturally turn to domestic newspapers to look for stories and also to provide background for their own understanding of the story they are covering.
However, anyone reading British newspapers over the past three or four weeks would find it hard to gauge much of use. The gymnastics of many Fleet Street titles in their reporting of, and attitude to, the games would be worthy of a gold medal.
A month ago, it was fashionable to cast doubt on the success of the games, especially of the transport arrangements. Columnists and reporters were confidently predicting paralysis in east London. The Underground was bound to grind to a halt under the pressure of extra passengers. Security searches by the hapless and short-handed G4S would be inefficiently run and queues would be long and disruptive.
British public opinion picked up on this pessimism, most of which was based on sheer guesswork. The foreign journalist reading London-printed papers would have been wincing in anticipation of a poorly-run Olympics with dismal prospects for their own chances of getting around the city and being able to cover the sports events.
Of course, none of this has come to pass. The non-UK journalists I have spoken to in the last fortnight have been universally delighted at how easy it has been to cover events, how quick travelling around this large city – only a minority will have had experience of living in anywhere of London’s size – has proved to be, and most of all how friendly and enthusiastic the Brits have been.
Then there is the Brits’ attitude to their own team’s chances. A week ago, this Olympics was written off by most Fleet Street papers as a sporting disaster waiting to unfold. Inquests into the failure were beginning. Today, according to The Sun, we live in the United Blingdom: the record 22 gold medals glittering on its front page representing unbridled triumph.
No wonder visiting journalists find the Brits hard to read.