I am not a cynic by nature. Yet something about the London 2012 Olympics has unearthed a curmudgeonly Ella Jolly who I never knew existed.
The knowledge that £9 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the Olympics – at the expense of other public spending – while usually austere politicians feebly reassure the British people that putting London on the world stage will ultimately be ‘good for growth’, fills me with fury.
Each time I walk through Euston station in London, which is plastered with McDonalds adverts screaming hollowly “We all make the games”, I feel so outraged that this sporting event is sponsored by a multinational corporation whose insatiability contributes to the obesity epidemic across the western world.
And although communities across Britain participated in the monumental Olympic torch relay, the Games themselves still feel so London-centric. Walking round Oxford Street this weekend, the Olympics were omnipresent – in all shop windows, billboards, tube announcements. Back in sleepy Warwickshire that heady excitement seems a little distant.
So as I settled down last week to watch the Opening Ceremony on Friday evening, I was fully anticipating feelings of cynicism or anger or embarrassment or disappointment.
Instead, my own heart surprised me, and I felt moved, entertained, humbled, and full of joy.
I do not have a patriotic bone in my body – last year’s Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee Celebrations left me feeling strangely numb – yet the Great Britain that Danny Boyle, the director of the ceremony, presented to the world, was a Great Britain that felt like mine.
It rejoiced in the rural and the urban, the simplicity of a bygone pastoral age and the connectedness of our own digital era, and crucially, it made heroes of normal everyday British people – the performers were all volunteers. It hailed all the wonders of Britain – the NHS; our rich literary heritage from Shakespeare and Milton to J.K. Rowling and J.M. Barrie; our incredibly diverse music: David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal; that singularly British sense of humour, and the power of youth and hope.
It celebrated love, with Paul McCartney singing “and in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”, and unity, with Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the internet) tweeting live “this is for everyone”. Love and unity.
And as the competing Olympic athletes processed round the stadium, I felt so proud to see representatives from Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Peru – countries where Practical Action endeavours to work in partnership with some of the poorest people to make their lives a little better. I am sure that those athletes have had to persevere against the odds to secure a place in London 2012.
In a Practical Action blog last week, my colleague Mansoor posed the question “do the Olympics and our efforts to fight global poverty have a relationship?” and anticipated an Opening Ceremony about oneness and our diverse unity. Mansoor was correct I think. The ceremony was indeed about unity and diversity. And it was also somehow – amazingly – both uniquely British, and cosmically human. I think that’s why I loved it.
That feeling of cosmic humanity is absolutely fundamental in our efforts to fight global poverty.
All too often development is considered an academic pursuit, with the people living in poverty all too often anonymous beneficiaries. For me, development is not academic. It is personal. It is about people. And they are living, feeling, thinking human beings with their own stories. And I don’t think we can ever afford to forget that development is, ultimately, about people.
Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony not only made me glad to British, it made me glad to be human. And it made me believe. It made me believe in hope and love and unity and perseverance and people. And I think in order to fight global poverty we all need to believe.