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London 2012, and the city that worked

My day at the Olympics ParkI look back fondly on the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics for all sorts of reasons: the astounding opening ceremony, the infectious joy and enthusiasm of the Olympic Park, the hugely impressive multi-platform BBC and C4 coverage and, of course, the frankly ridiculous number of unforgettable sporting moments.

But reflecting on the whole shebang one year on, there is one sensation that stays with me above all others: the fact that, for those fleeting few weeks, London felt finished.

Obviously, there were the Olympic-specifics – that bewildering infrastructure which took seven years to build, and which reached (mostly temporary) completion for those precious few weeks. But what I’m talking about is a more general phenomenon – perhaps one which only hardened Londoners can properly appreciate.

Because that sense of completion, of fulfilment, extended into every artery of the city. For two magnificent months, the things which are in an otherwise permanent state of flux – road works, construction sites and transport networks – suddenly stabilised. The constant forces of urban evolution were put on hold and, as if by magic, a city which normally exists in a perpetual state of self-improvement felt like it was, well, finished.

Not just finished, either, but functional. In all the years I’ve known London – right up to the day before the opening ceremony, and every day since the Paralympics ended – the place has never quite come together, whether because of line or station closures, road blockages, or just the constant drone and clatter of interminable building works.

But during the Games, all the city’s cogs turned to perfection. The whole Olympics undertaking was a masterclass in the execution of big ideas and fiendishly complex planning, but throughout it all no idea was bigger, no plan more intricate, than the city itself. And the city itself worked.

A love-hate game

I normally try to refrain from excessive negativity on this blog, but the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon has been driving me round the bend. I feel the need to rant.

What is it that annoys me? Well, if I may be permitted to serve for the match…

15-0! ‘Today’ at Wimbledon
Why oh why are the highlights scheduled when play is still going on? Every year it baffles me. Not only does it create a headache for those returning home late from work, it inconveniences the BBC itself. Last Wednesday was the most dramatic day of the championships, but because Federer didn’t lose to Stakhovsky until around 8.20pm, the highlights programme got squeezed to little over half an hour. Why the inflexibility? Why not schedule the show from 9.30-10.30pm instead of 8-9pm? For all its boasts about the extent of its coverage, it’s like the BBC fears reprisals if the tennis encroaches too much on primetime.

30-0! Highlights? What highlights?
It’s not just the timing of Today at Wimbledon – it’s the content too. They’ve only got an hour, so why clutter the show with patronising VTs and introductory montages to every bleeding chunk of a match they deign to show? Even in the tournament’s latter stages, there’s more than enough enthralling action to fill the hour, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead of targeting those who’ve been unable to see the tennis live, the highlights show feels more like a cosy summing-up for those who’ve been watching all day.

40-0! Make your mind up!
Why the endless flip-flopping between BBC1 and BBC2? It just feels so… archaic. I know that some people stick to watching one channel all day long, but I guess that’s because they like the usual content – so why irritate everyone (including, presumably, BBC schedulers) by shaking things up? I guess it’s about ratings, but in a world where more people are watching their chosen content on their own terms, the patriarchal sensibility feels outmoded. The BBC should respect the audience’s ability to decide what it wants to watch – and respect its own multi-platform infrastructure enough to know that we have the means to find it.

Game, set and match! Fear of depth.
This is the clincher: the fundamental divide between quantity and quality. And by ‘quality’ I mean ‘depth’. The tone of the TV coverage is resolutely superficial, presumably because the BBC is addressing a broad spectrum of people, many of whom have only a passing interest in the game. To me, however, that’s just an excuse for laziness – particularly when, as its presenters are so fond of telling us, the BBC has red buttons and online streams coming out of every orifice, readily enabling them to be more ambitious in how they engage with the action. But it doesn’t happen. Instead there is a determination to address an unhappy medium – one which feels increasingly anaemic in a world where digital media and dedicated sports channels have created a new orthodoxy for those who want to ‘go deep’ with their passions.

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. McEnroe, Becker, Henman and Davenport are all to be admired for bringing insider insight to the MOR TV coverage. And 5 Live’s Wimbledon output is a model mix of accessibility, depth and adaptability.

But I worry that’s no longer enough – for the BBC’s sake, as much as anyone else’s. I recognise that the corporation faces pressures quite unlike those of its commercial rivals, but that’s no excuse for such a complacent ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. In the digital age, the mainstream is no longer a comfortable place to be; our tolerance thresholds for content which isn’t quite right for each of us is diminishing with every new gadget and Wi-Fi hotspot that throws itself upon us. And that’s what I’ve experienced with Wimbledon 2013. For all its multiscreen prowess, the BBC’s coverage has felt like a dinosaur – its head in the present, but its heart in a forgotten past, where people’s tastes, behaviours and expectations were very different beasts.

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