Waiting for the Olympic word
August 9, 2012
With differences between anthems and agony measured in milliseconds and millimetres, the stakes at – and the pressures of – the Olympics are as high as one could imagine. Just watching it makes you nervous, excited and anxious.
The same is true for that moment in time during the closing ceremonies when the Olympics themselves – that is, their hosts – are measured against all previous hosts. It all comes down to a syllable or two, injected with an all-but-impossible level of meaning that will be debated and parsed for a long time.
I’m thinking of that word – or very short phrase – spoken by the IOC President Jacques Rogge in formally shutting down the Games this coming Sunday as the Olympic flame is extinguished. It’s the word(s) he’ll use to characterize the sum total of incredible human effort by thousands of athletes, organizers and volunteers over the preceding 17 days, not to mention the years of training leading up to this point.
So, when it comes to that rhetorical difference maker, what will Rogge say? What adjectives or adverbs should he use – in the land of Shakespeare where they take their language rather seriously – to describe the enormity of what we’ve all seen?
In considering this question, think of what Rogge has said since taking over the Olympic reigns in 2002.
In 2010, he called the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games – one punctuated by beer-carrying athletes – “excellent and very friendly”. Accurate, but not much of a stretch as most of British Columbia could be called that on any given day. But lovely of Rogge to say, all the same.
Four years ago in Beijing, he declared the Olympics to be “truly exceptional”. This slightly more formal tone captured the essence of precision that was stamped on the Games there from the very first Opening Ceremony drumbeat. That is, until Jimmy Page started gyrating on that double-decker bus in the Closing Ceremony, presaging the party that London has become.
A snowy Turin in 2006 was called "magnificent”, a word Rogge clearly relished as a hot Athens two years before that was also labeled “magnificent”. However, such economy of language likely didn’t go over that well with the Italians and Greeks. There’s not much bravado in that sort of oratorical democracy.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City in 2002 – Rogge’s first as IOC President – were “superb”. Short and punchy there, which is ironic given the tall and languid nature of Mitt Romney, lead organizer of those Games.
In carving out his own linguistic ice from his predecessor Juan Antonio Samaranch, Rogge had an entire thesaurus upon which to draw. After all, Samaranch never met an Olympic Games he didn’t love more than previous one. He simply called them all “the best games ever” as if he couldn’t actually tell the difference. Perhaps things started to blur after 21 years at the top of the IOC.
So, coming back to London, what will Rogge say this weekend, having said yesterday that these are a "very good Games"?
Odds are he might go with “glorious”.
It has a nice ring to it, while also connecting smartly with Gloriana, the Queen’s boat on which she recently sailed down the Thames in marking her diamond jubilee. Or is that overdoing it a titch?
Failing that, how about “spectacular”? Or “brilliant”? Or “splendid”? They would all do the job, and they all sound so, well, English. Rather fitting, wot wot?
Of the words that Rogge will not say, you can be quite certain that he won’t use “gutted”, the mot de choix among British commentators and tweeters to describe any number of ill-winded fates that befell some athletes along the way. Don’t get me wrong – #gutted makes for a great hashtag. But it doesn’t suit the exultant mood of the British capital.
Nor is “massive” likely to be on the list, despite it apparently being one of Prince William’s favourite words. Apologies Prince, but it sounds a bit too Red Bull and undergrad for the IOC. Better leave that gem for outdoor music festivals.
So as the Games in London come to a close on Sunday, and you think about all the amazing stories of human endeavour and the split-second differences that created living legends, consider the pressures inherent in giving that last speech, projecting those critical syllables.
It’s massively important as the flame goes out.
I just hope Lord Coe won’t be gutted by what Rogge says.
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