Before the Olympics began, people whinged about the specially reserved traffic lanes for Olympic dignitaries and participants. They called them “Zil” lanes, with connotations of Communist police state. They whinged about the amount of security – suggesting that Britain was indeed turning into a police state. They whinged about the money being spent on the Olympics. They whinged about the grip the sponsors had on access to the Olympic areas. They whinged about the weather. With seemingly typical self-deprecating humour, the Brits even whinged that whingeing was the latest Olympic sport, and that Mona Lot would get the first gold medal.
Indeed, the Australians whinged that the Brits had overtaken them in the whingeing stakes. They’d suffered the Olympic Whinge when the games were in Sidney. Simon Barnes, a reporter, said, “As soon as a city is granted the Games, it's a cue for a biblical seven-year plague. Not locusts nor boils but the belief that disaster and horror lurk in everything connected with the Games. And then, in a single instant, it ends.”
The whingeing began to dissipate rather earlier as the torch relay wound its way through throngs of people at every stage of its journey around the United Kingdom. It was the torchbearers who saw to that. Yes, there were celebrities and dignitaries and sportsmen and women. But there were also local heroes. It was these local heroes who ensured the crowds. There was Ross McClelland aged 20, a young soldier recently returned from seven months in Afghanistan. His story was told in local and national newspapers, how he’d been first on the scene to help a friend who’d had his leg blown off by a roadside bomb, and how he’d lost two friends in a road accident not long before. It was 5:30 in the morning when he arrived to await the flame. Crowds were already there at the ferry terminal waiting for the torch to land on Scottish soil from its tour of Northern Ireland. School children, complete with home-made torches, cheered him on. Ross, clearly overcome, proudly set off on the first section of the Scottish tour. It was profoundly moving.
But it was another soldier, Ben Parkinson, who truly symbolised what the Olympics were all about. Ben, too, had served in Afghanistan, and was injured in 2006. “Injured” seems such an inadequate word to convey what had happened to him. He lost both legs below the knee, suffered a broken pelvis, a back broken in four places, a shattered arm and chest, and a massive brain injury. It would have been enough simply to have held the torch aloft while sitting in his wheelchair. But no. Ben insisted on walking for almost half an hour holding his torch high, his only help being an assistant supporting him by the arm. His pride, courage and determination dissipated whatever remnants of whingeing had survived.
There were many other such local heroes. Just before Ben Parkinson there was Lucy Brunt, aged 13. Lucy has Down’s Syndrome, and was nominated to run a lap of the Don Valley Stadium at Doncaster for her courage and determination to cope with her disability. Her inclusion symbolised the inclusivity of this Games. This was an event for the world, for everyone. Everyone mattered.
Then there was Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. It was an amazing tour de force, celebrating human creativity and ingenuity and innovation. He traced the development of British society from rural roots through the industrial revolution, the Jarrow Marchers, the Suffragettes, the World Wars, the National Health Service, to Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of the world-wide web. All was accompanied by a wondrous variety of music and dance and story, from Shakespeare to J K Rowling and from Elgar to punk and rap. There was glorious humour: even the Queen at 86 allowed herself to be “parachuted” in, accompanied by James Bond all the way from the Palace and the corgis to the Stadium in order to open the Games. It was a celebration of freedom and infinite variety. It was all a wondrous elaboration of William Blake’s “Jerusalem. Blake wrote ironically about the “dark satanic mills” that were proliferating in this “green and pleasant land.” Danny Boyle took us from the darkness and pain of the industrial revolution to consider the infinite possibilities for the future.
It was an amazing display of technical skill and innovation underpinning the creative vision of Danny Boyle and his team who succeeded in inspiring so many volunteers to participate and give their all. His team’s transformation of the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron was an appropriate culmination. Each of the 204 national teams had been led into the stadium not only by a flag-bearer but also by a youngster carrying a copper bowl shaped like a petal. These petals were attached to stems already in place in the centre of the stadium. Seven future athletes, all young teenagers representing the future, carried torches lit from the torch borne to the stadium by Steve Redgrave. They used their torches to begin the lighting of what would become a gigantic dandelion seedhead coalescing into one magnificent flame. The nations were coming together for a celebration of human achievement. The petals would be dismantled and taken to the 204 countries. The legacy in Britain wouldn’t be a used cauldron, but the flame set alight in the hearts and souls of all those inspired by this great world event.
The creativity on display is the creativity of creation itself. The creative spirit is known to Christians as the Holy Spirit, the divine spirit that inspired Jesus with his vision of how things can be: his vision of the “kingdom.” It is this creative spirit that enables poetry, dance, drama, art, scientific progress, architectural ingenuity, medical and surgical progress, engineering, for practical and intellectual activities of all kinds. It creates the possibilities for human development within the context of love and care. This is what Danny Boyle and his team celebrated in that kaleidoscopic opening ceremony.
Yet we whinge. The lectionary readings for next Sunday, 5th August, speak of the whingeings of the Israelites travelling with Moses through the desert. They have just been freed from the misery of forced labour – but all they do now is complain about the lack of onions, garlic and leeks that provided so much flavour for their food. They have forgotten their former misery. It’s not just the Brits or the Aussies who whinge! Whingeing seems to be written into the DNA of humanity. Yet they survived and became strong, learning along the way the importance of community.
Even the 5,000 fed by Jesus at that marvellous picnic on the grassy slope beside the Sea of Galilee whinged. They longed for a better life. They were intrigued by Jesus. They didn’t understand him, though. They thought he was special – but wanted real hard proof. The amazing picnic hadn’t been enough. They wanted that special bread from heaven that he spoke about. They wanted real manna. They didn’t realise Jesus was speaking about spiritual food. “Prove yourself, Jesus,” was their cry.
Is it the case that under our whingeing lies our deep desire for something better? We suspect we are on the verge of something better but don’t dare to believe it to be true – so we whinge, giving voice to red herrings, lame excuses. Our whingeing is a turning away from what could be so much better because we think it too hard to achieve. We whinge because we are too fearful of failure to take the leap of optimism. Our whinges are excuses for non-participation, for our failure to hope.
The torchbearers, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, the youngsters lighting the 204 petalled flame, the athletes all call us into participation, into the community of those in whom the flame of creativity is kindled. The world, they tell us, can be a better place. That same creativity and dedication can be used in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Iraq, in the global financial systems to create a better world for everyone. The Holy Spirit is at work, inspiring, nudging us forwards, filling us with hope.