The last few weeks have seen several remarkable phenomena. Newspapers have picked up upon the unprecedented sporting success of Team GB, the efficiency of the Olympic operation and the sheer niceness of the competitors (as opposed to those nasty pantomime villains, the Premier League footballers).
But in my experience, the most extraordinary element of the Olympic Games was the experience of regularly sharing conversations with people on public transport, in queues and around the Olympic Park itself. Friends noticed it too, but those who picked up on it the most were, like me, clad in a garish red, purple and cream outfit. I was a Gamesmaker (a linguistic innovation worthy of the finest Soviet agitprop, it basically meant 'volunteer').
Having applied along with a quarter of a million others, I was eventually told earlier this year that I'd be stationed in the media are of the park. This made sense, with my working background in radio journalism. And, in an exciting innovation, this was the first time that an Olympic Games was to have a chaplaincy service for the media. So I was assigned as a chaplain, along with a team of 12 others.
The provision of chaplaincy to the media meant we were placed in a pre-fab 'faith room' alongside the massage room, gym, post office and bars as one of the 'services' on offer - a postmodern way of looking at faith if ever there was one. But we were happy to be there all the same. Sports chaplaincy has a long heritage, but the main multi-faith centre for the athletes was over the other side of the park - we were pioneering new ground, and it felt exciting.
With colleagues from various denominations and faiths, we set about our work. Which, it turned out, was interesting, but on occasions, frustrating. We were keen to have as many conversations as possible and to assist with any pastoral needs that presented themselves. But the journalists were busy, and so were all the other media staff, as well as the volunteers, cleaners, caterers and technicians keeping the place ticking. At times it felt like I was the only person in the place who wasn’t rushing somewhere. I may have looked official in my garish acrylic get-up, but was there a point?
I soon realised this must be how many chaplains feel. I'm not ordained and hadn't done this kind of thing before. But surely, much of the 'work' done by a police or hospital chaplain is actually self-generated? There's no point in sitting waiting for people to come and find you (although many Muslims, in particular were making good use of the faith room). So soon we set about touring the International Broadcast Centre and the Main Press Centre (everything on the Olympic Park has an Orwellian acronym, but I'll save you the hassle).
We had conversations over coffee, chats at meal times and generally got our faces known. And it was a lot of fun. Sometimes people had problems and wanted prayer, or to know more about our faith. But often, people were just happy to be asked how they were doing, and what their role was demanding of them that day.
For the duration of the Games, we had a consistent presence in the heart of the media area and I know we brought comfort to those who sought it, as well as a safe place for people of different faiths to pray and contemplate, as well as to receive the Eucharist, partake in Muslim prayers or Jewish Shabbat services.
And what did I get out of it? Well, without meaning to sound too much like a hyperbolic sports commentator, a small role in one of the defining events of 21st Century Britain. We were Gamesmakers, along with those who played a much more practical role in actually making the Games happen. The drivers, officials, stewards, ticket-collectors and translators who all gave up their time for free were marvellous. They made me proud to be British. Which is something I've never said before. And something I think I've never truly felt.
But, along with the immense performance of the Team GB athletes, the sense of pulling together with other volunteers has helped me see the value of our common life as a country. Previously I was suspicious of British pride and linked it all too readily with narrow nationalism, but the Games have led me to a point where I feel happy to begin to explore embracing my Britishness as well as the Englishness I already keenly felt (alongside the other aspects of my identity).
The Olympics had big problems. The corporate lockdown on the Park was, frankly, embarrassing. And some of the sponsors are repugnant companies who should be held accountable for deeply unethical practices. The ticketing process was a labyrinthine chore, which meant that lovely middle-class people seemed to end up with an awful lot more tickets than local young people. Ho Hum. And there is the vexed issue of legacy. If the area is turned into a playground for middle-class incomers, I'll be furious. What east London needs is good, affordable housing for everyone. Let's hope it's achieved.
Another issue was with the abrasive style of some of the religious groups who played a role outside the Park. As we were official LOCOG chaplains, there were restrictions on proselytising and they were adhered to judiciously (although I had some great chats about Jesus, when asked!). But those outside the Park were under no such restrictions, and all manner of conspiracy theorists and cranks were recruiting. However, there were also many reputable evangelistic organisations doing valuable work, of course.
My experience as a Gamesmaker will live with me forever. Not because I talked to more people on the tube (although I certainly did - and they were all so lovely!) but because I was able to be a tiny part in a very special event. I'm grateful to God and to my colleagues for giving me the chance.
Andy’s a writer and broadcaster and works for the Centre for Theology and Community in London’s East End.