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London 2012 Olympics
Photograph: Stu Forster / Staff

How the 2012 Olympics made us proud to be Londoners

‘Everyone was expecting Britain to fall on its arse, but it didn’t.’ Ten years on, athletes, organisers and volunteers explain what made 2012 so special

Alice Saville
Written by
Alice Saville

The 2012 London Olympics was, from the outset, a gigantic gamble.

A decade on, it’s easy to forget that the games in our city started life as a £9 billion pound bet on the idea that London could not only pull off a major world event, but ace it. The idea of the capital hosting the games was conceived in the heady aftermath of ’90s ‘Cool Britannia’, but brought to life post-recession, as austerity politics began to bite. As crunch time approached, the media ripped into the event’s spiralling costs, its ‘offensively terrible’ mascots, and its controversy-beset development of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford.

Not only did London somehow pull it off, it put on an epochal event that seemingly won over absolutely everyone in the UK. Team GB landed 29 gold medals and 65 medals overall, in its best Olympic performance since 1908. Perhaps more importantly, it surprised both the world and itself with a brilliantly bonkers and unexpectedly touching Opening Ceremony (James Bond and the Queen parachuting into the stadium was a highlight), with a universally praised army of volunteer Games Makers, and with something more intangible: an outpouring of pride in what this city and its people are capable of. Here are seven people whose lives were changed for ever by the 2012 games, and who felt a pride that London arguably hasn’t experienced since.

The 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony
Photograph: Cameron Spencer

Paulette Randall, associate director of the Olympic Opening Ceremony

I’d been on the dole for three or four months, so it was a lovely surprise when I got a phone call from Danny Boyle saying ‘I’m going to need some help with the Opening Ceremony.’ I went in for a chat and I was blown away by the ideas that he and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce had come up with. In a way, the scale of it was so incomprehensible that there was nothing to fear. I decided I was going to treat it like any other show.

We worked with a cast of 10,000 volunteers, and they were extraordinary. Their level of commitment was unbelievable: we had nurses coming off a 12-hour shift and learning how to dance. Even when we were rehearsing in a carpark in Dagenham in the pouring rain, they were working their socks off.

The PM at the time, David Cameron, really wanted the military to be involved, but that wasn’t the story we wanted to tell. Instead, the Opening Ceremony had this multifaceted vision of Britishness: one that said we’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got stuff to be proud of. It was especially important to have a section celebrating the welfare state, because even then we were in danger of losing it. Why would you want Britain to become a place where if you haven’t got enough money, you just die?

My favourite part of the ceremony was the potted history of the UK at the beginning, from the Industrial Revolution to the suffragettes to Windrush to ‘Sergeant Pepper’. It just made you think: Gosh, it’s incredible what this tiny island has produced!

I remember the 2012 Olympics as a joyful, optimistic period, and it feels like we’ve gone rapidly backwards from there. Now, we’re in really dire straits: there are more food banks than McDonald’s. Yes, the Olympics cost a lot of money, but nothing comes for free. It’s so important that we fund culture: it’s a way to hold on to the things that define us, and to explain to the world who we are.

Andrew Hung
Photograph: Jess Hand

Andrew Hung, musician, of now-defunct band Fuck Buttons, whose music featured in the Opening Ceremony

When we got the call saying our music was going to be used in the Opening Ceremony, it felt so surreal. We were just two kids who were making music in our bedroom, and now we’d have this massive platform. I’m still flabbergasted how far we got with a name like ‘Fuck Buttons’. I never thought we’d be played on the BBC!

When the ceremony started on TV, my phone went absolutely crazy. I think I got about 40 messages in five minutes. It even made my parents momentarily take my job seriously. Although they’ve gone back to hoping I’ll retrain as a doctor now.

When I watched the Opening Ceremony, I remember feeling overwhelmed by a sense of pride which I’d not felt before and haven’t really felt since. Before the 2012 Olympics, everyone was expecting Britain to fall on its arse, but it didn’t. The whole of London was just buzzing.

Adelle Tracey and other young athletes carry the Olympic flame at the 2012 opening ceremony
Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Adelle Tracey, one of the Olympic torchbearers in the Opening Ceremony

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Dame Kelly Holmes: she’s also British-Jamaican, and she competed in the same events as me. So it meant so much when she nominated me to be one of seven young athletes who ran round the Olympic Stadium with torches during the Opening Ceremony.

We started calling ourselves the ‘secret seven’ because we weren’t allowed to tell anyone what we were doing. Every time we had a rehearsal they would completely empty the stadium because nobody, not even the volunteers, could know what we were up to. We had a codename for the cauldron, which was ‘Betty’.

On the day, we got different instructions in our earpieces from what we’d practised: luckily, we all stuck to what we’d rehearsed, or it could have all gone horribly wrong. When it came to the actual evening, I remember thinking: I really just want to soak this all up, it’s all so magical and surreal.

To this day, I still think that that moment did loads for me. It gave me the motivation to be like: Oh gosh, Dame Kelly Holmes thinks I can be successful in the future. My goal is still to become an Olympian, and I’m very hopeful I’ll compete at the Paris 2024 Olympics, representing Jamaica: I feel like I’m coming into my prime as an athlete.

Grant Hunter, designer of the 2012 Olympics mascots
Photograph: Jess Hand

Grant Hunter, designer of Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville

When Wenlock and Mandeville were launched, it was like, ‘Ohhh, the reaction from the press is a bit negative.’ It was the same when the logo came out: the cynical British press wanted to put the boot in. But both were pushing new ground. If you try to keep everyone happy, you’re not going to create something exciting.

Adults were like, ‘What are these one-eyed alien beings?’ Whereas kids were like, ‘Ah, they’re weird and great.’ 2012 was the first digital Olympics. We were inspired by how kids were going on gaming consoles and customising their avatars, so we created mascots that had a reflective finish, designed to reflect who you are, with an option to go online and customise them.

When Mo Farah won gold, I remember this roar going round the stadium. And seeing Usain Bolt hold up a model of Wenlock when he won gold was amazing. The Olympics gave us a big injection of positivity and national pride.

I’m a West Ham fan, so the stadium is now the home of my football club. That’s kind of special.

Sheep appear as part of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony
Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/GettyImages

Jill Clark, animal handler

When they asked me to train farm animals to appear in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, I wasn’t daunted at first. Sending out a few sheep, a few geese, a couple of cows is nothing to me, because we do that stuff all the time for films and TV. But when I realised the scale of the event, it really started hitting home.

We prepped the animals on the farm before we took them up to the venue. We lived under the flight path so we had planes going over, so they were used to that. And we played the drums and the recorder to them, to get them used to music.

After the Opening Ceremony, the animals went back to their normal lives in the field. Esther and Frieda the cows are still going strong today, although they’re very old.

My career as an animal handler started many years ago: I ran a dog-training club and someone asked me if I could train a dog to bite a postman, for a safety campaign on TV. Since then I’ve worked on all sorts, including the film ‘War Horse’. But working on the Olympics was the best experience I’ve ever had in my life.

Kate Richardson-Walsh plays hockey with a broken jaw at the 2012 Olympics
Photograph: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Kate Richardson-Walsh, captain of the GB women’s hockey team

We trained in the Olympic Park while it was basically a building site: every time we went, a bit more of the stadium had been built, so the excitement just grew and grew.

During our first game with Japan, I went in for a tackle, and another player’s hockey stick caught me on the jaw. I just remember being in pain, then lots of blood started coming out of my mouth. I spent that night in hospital with a broken jaw, crying in bed by myself, thinking that this was our chance to win an Olympic medal but I’d ruined it by going in for that tackle.

The only thing that changed my mood was the next morning when the surgeon came out and said: ‘Kate, I think we can fix your jaw and get you out playing’. The whole GB team supported me as I recovered: one of the boxers even lent me a blender so I could purée my food. In the end, I only missed two games, and when I played the final game where we won bronze, the reaction from the crowd was unbelievable.

I got married to my teammate Helen Richardson-Walsh the year after the 2012 Olympics. The whole team came along to support us.

So many new people got into hockey after watching the games. If you go to Olympic Parks in other countries, a lot of them aren’t being used anymore, but the Queen Elizabeth Park is constantly used, whether it’s people swimming in the pools, using the athletics tracks or going to the playground. That green space is an incredible legacy of the games.

Volunteers at the London 2012 Olympics
Photograph: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images

Aneka Rai, Olympics volunteer

When it was announced that London was hosting the 2012 Olympics, I just remember this feeling of complete euphoria. I got the idea to volunteer through reading an advert in my local paper.

It felt like a chance to show London off as a city. I was stationed near Tower Bridge, offering visitors help and directions. Some of them seemed to think that I could request for Tower Bridge to be opened, and I had to be like, ‘No no, that’s not how it works.’

I’ll never forget that insane day of athletics when you had Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford all winning gold on the same day. Or watching Tom Daley win bronze: he’s from my hometown of Plymouth so I was on the edge of my seat, just willing him to succeed.

Watching the games on TV made me realise what a wonderful city London is. And what wonderful people we have here. We’ve got something to be really proud of, I think.

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