That’s right, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t help but have noticed the Olympic Flame has come to Cardiff.
On day five of the flame’s 70-day route across the British Isles it left my West Midlands home town of Worcester on Friday morning and made its way into Wales, passing through Abergavenny, Pontypool and Newport, before arriving in Cardiff at 5.30pm. The flame was unloaded in St Mellons in the west of the city and carried down the Newport Road to the city centre, where it was escorted past Cardiff castle, taken around the Millennium stadium by Welsh rugby captain Sam Warburton, and delivered to Coopers Field for a celebratory concert.
I had watched the torch arrive in Worcester on Thursday via the BBC’s Torchcam online stream, and was pleasantly surprised to see such an impressive turnout, with the city centre streets lined with eager spectators. Having spoken to a few people who witnessed the scenes first-hand the atmosphere seems to have been excellent, with children playing in the streets and a ‘festival-like’ mood taking over. There were even people waiting to wave it off again at 8am Friday morning, when it left Worcester down streets just yards from my home.
I was then in Cardiff to see it arrive, and witnessed the whole city centre shut down in preparation. With the prospect of a Friday afternoon party on the hottest day of the year the people of Cardiff had turned out in force to welcome the flame, as the streets around Kingsway and Castle Street thronged in anticipation.
With controversies already raging about the security of the London games and the lengths taken in the name of counter-terrorism it was impossible to miss the high police presence. Police vans swept the streets with sirens blazing, officers on bikes, horseback and foot covered every inch of the torch’s route, and the South and East Wales Air Support Helicopter patrolled the skies above us.
1700hrs. Aircraft flying over Cardiff City Centre to support Olympic Torch operation. BBC aircraft also in vacinity if you were wondering
— South & East Wales (@helicops) May 25, 2012
Even more pervasive was the corporate influence. The three designated sponsors of the torch relay were clearly making sure to get their money’s worth, each with a fully-manned float leading the Torch, and uniformed employees of all three sponsors dispatched to entertain the waiting crowds. ‘Limited Edition’ bottles of carbonated drink were given out for free, as stilt-walkers in costumes advertising a national bank entertained the crowds.
The flame itself passed by quickly, as it headed into Bute Park for the evening’s concert. Tickets to enter the park were available to anyone who had registered in advance, but judging by the number being given away free take-up must have been low. A friend was handed 40 to distribute as she wanted, and several stewards were giving them out before the flame arrived. (All clearly identified by their bright red uniforms, covered of course in the logo of everyone’s favourite American soft drinks conglomerate).
If I sound overly-cynical of this I apologise, but this sense of unease has characterised the build-up to the Games for me. The Olympics has always been a heavily stage-managed affair, with involvement at every level from multi-national corporations, but it was still strange to see it in action for myself.
On such a gorgeous afternoon the vibe around Cardiff was always going to be a good one, but the whole thing still felt somewhat forced. The Torch Relay is essentially a manufactured, artificial celebration – there’s no real point to it beyond drumming up anticipation for the summer’s events and drawing attention away from London to the rest of the UK – but it’s still a ritual I’ve so far found myself enjoying.
Worcester certainly looked impressive as people lined its streets to welcome the Olympic circus into town, and despite the attention garnered by celebrity torch bearers like Sam Warburton or Matt Smith (who carried it through Cardiff Bay on Saturday morning), the focus given to the stories of the ordinary people nominated to carry the flame is always endearing.
I suppose to me the Olympic Games have always been first and foremost a great sporting occasion, with all the pomp and razzmatazz which follows it a necessary, and occasionally distracting sideshow. I’m definitely still excited about working at Horse Guards Parade in August, and for the chance to experience the Games themselves firsthand, but I am wary of the sense of compulsory enjoyment which only seems to be increasing as they draw nearer.