An Olympic torch song


The Olympic Torch was carried through Hackney on Saturday. What I remember of Hackney is the alley behind the pub on Queensbridge Road and the yellow light from the kitchen of the flat above it and the sound of footsteps and bad laughter and breaking glass after midnight. We lived in the alley.

This was last year, before the riots and the fires, and we had the one big room downstairs at the back of a storefront hotel on Dalston Lane. It was new then, just five rooms, all smelling of carpet glue and palak paneer, hand-built by a family trying to catch the first wave of Olympic tourist money as it washed across London. Once one of the city's poorest boroughs, Hackney was riding a boom-or-bust cycle of gentrification. Still is.
It got a new train station for the Games and it lies just three stops and a few minutes up the tracks, a world and £20 billion distant from the space-age operating theater of the 2012 Olympic Park.

The torch was run up Kingsland Road past the Jamaican patty shops and the kebab stands and the Turkish Food Centre, past the lonely fish-and-chips holdout, past the Sainsbury's and the open air market behind it, past the vendors from Senegal and Cameroon and Trinidad stacking their plantains and CDs, the buckets in the butcher's stalls filled with tripe and pickled trotters, and the staring pigs' heads lined up like a jury. The Bentley idling at the curb belongs to your doctor or your drug dealer. This is the London of "EastEnders" and "London Fields," all bricks and soot and ambition and Dickens.


It was estimated these London Olympics would cost £5 billion. Then £10 billion. Now £20 billion. It was estimated they would earn £20 billion. Then £10 billion. Now £5 billion.

The truth is these Olympic Games, like all the ones before and all the ones to come, will be lucky to break even. No matter how many "corporate partners" and "official sponsors" sign on, expenses and estimates rise and rise and rise again, the graft and the fraud and the political grease all cost, and as much cash as is pumped in is how much cash is pumped right out again. It was ever thus.

And in the run-up, the run up. The Torch. Seventy days, 8,000 miles, 8,000 torchbearers and 8,000 stories through 1,000 towns and cities. The golden thing itself ignited in Greece; a pretty, gas-operated tube of a couple pounds weight and moderate length, wind-tunnel tested by a corporate partner to avoid flameouts, blowouts and bad metaphors. And in the press materials, again and again, every one of those 8,000 stories described as "inspirational."

Because that's what we're selling here, after all. Which may be why there isn't much mention anywhere that the modern torch relay got its real start as a piece of agitprop theater for the Nazis at the Berlin games in 1936. It is historical, but in no way inspiring.

Instead we cast our thoughts back to old Athens and old fire and the promises of old innocence. The torch becomes a kind of advent calendar, a harmless ticktock, the advertisers' countdown to the next games, the next big TV show. And for the world sporting press, the bonus of a recurring item as the week wears on: Which athletic celebrity, which brand-affiliated hero will climb those stairs to light the cauldron at the Opening Ceremonies on the night of Friday the 27th?

In the meantime, expect several hundred thousand more columns about the British and Mother England. The punchlines are "teeth," "bangers," "birds" and "lifts."


It's easy to be skeptical. Cynical. Especially this week, sunk eye-socket-deep in sports corporatism and athletic commercialism, every inch of every foot of every mile of the torch run sponsored by someone trying to sell us something. Every minute in every medium on every platform branded by the Official Partners of the Official Olympics. The graft and the fraud, the lost perspective and the failure of any morality beyond money; the poor neighborhoods razed and sacrificed to greed; the billions spent to simulate for two weeks the eternal diversity of poverty -- and that busted open-air market across the tracks.

And yet.

And yet. There it is, that antique fire, rekindled, that old Promethean innocence, and it is impossible to remain unmoved. Because there we are, all running and throwing and reaching -- you, me, Bolt, Thorpe, Owens, Nurmi and on and on and on -- back and back into the darkness across two thousand years, purified by fire and connected by persistence and ambition and beauty and the chill runs up your spine just to see it. Still. No matter how high the cost of being human, there is always this, the flame passed from one hand to the next to the next.

Somehow the torch justifies The Torch®.

The torch is its own corrective. And for the next few weeks, here we are again, running past a cauldron of fire, running like mad in that yellow light, the very best of us running on behalf of us all.