Archived Story

Apathy put aside for Olympics

Published 1:41pm Monday, July 30, 2012

My sister Martha (Boone) Lytton Cobbold lives in and manages Knebworth House, an historic English manor and tourist location that’s been in the Lytton family since 1490. Knebworth is located on the A1 motorway about 30 miles north of London, where the 2012 Olympics began last night.

London’s busy on a Tuesday in March. Adding a worldwide event like Olympics, during the heat of the English summer vacation season, right after the Queen’s Jubilee, made me assume that London would be in turmoil and the locals would be plenty upset by all the commotion. A clip I saw on CNN interviewing London taxi cab drivers protesting the event “confirmed” my assumption. So I gave Martha a call Thursday afternoon our time, when she was watching the Olympics’ opening ceremonies on her TV 30 miles away from the actual event, just to see how bad the chaos was.

And I was very surprised about what she said.

Martha said that this summer the English people have, unexpectedly, become quite passionate about the Olympics.

“I think the torch is what has really brought people together because when we won the bid to host the Olympics in this country, initially there was a great amount of excitement and camaraderie, but then it immediately soured because of the expense and the recession. There was great concern that too much money was being spent on something that was becoming a tax on the nation, and people didn’t really see or understand the benefit of it,” she said.

However, somebody with vision found a way to flip the national mood. Martha said Olympics organizers designed the torch relay that wove across the island and brought the torch within a 10-mile radius of every resident in the country.

“It was quite an amazing feat,” she said.

People had the chance to nominate torch bearers and everybody from school children to community leaders to people who are definitely not athletes got involved, carrying the torch various distances 50 yards to a mile each. She said it got the English people involved, and the passion began to build.

The closest large town to Knebworth is Stevenage, a community of about 85,000 that Martha described as “about the size of Tuscaloosa.”

“The town of Stevenage, when it came through here, there were close to 20,000 people watching it. And it was raining,” Martha said. “Sunday. In the rain. People were interested to go.”

That’s more than a quarter of all the city residents, standing in the rain to watch what is essentially a one-float parade, an Olympic torch being carried through the streets.

“Since the torch relay occurred, it’s really altered things dramatically, and I would say it is the most amazing amount of patriotism that I’ve seen in the 20 years that I’ve lived here,” she said.

“Every single grocery story you go to, every convenience store, every gasoline station – they call them petrol stations here – everywhere you go they’re selling memorabilia to do with the Olympics. There’s coffee cups and there’s T-shirts and there’s flags that you’d put on your car for a football game, except it’s for the Olympics. “

Martha said there have been many country-wide cultural events, everything from public picnics to what we would call county fairs, organized with Olympic themes as people geared up for the games.

Hatfield is another city, slightly larger than Stevenage, located between Martha’s home and London.

“I sit on a tourism board called ‘Enjoy Hertfordshire,’ a regional board, and I was told that when (the torch) came through Hatfield, an economic and tourism officer handed out 15,000 Enjoy Hertfordshire magazines and over 20,000 ‘Hearts for Brit’ badges, which had the British flag on it, but the kids all wanted it.”

“You know, those are amazing statistics,” she said. “It’s amazing seeing people pulling together and feeling this camaraderie for the country. Because as I said, they’re quite apathetic here, except for football.”

Of course, when my sister talks about football, she’s talking about the sport we call soccer, though we here in Alabama can certainly understand being passionate about anything that involves the word “football.”

It sounds like England has caught Olympic fever.

Boone is publisher of The Outlook.