This summer, I was hired by Britain’s Guardian newspaper to write a column titled “The worst Olympics ever,” a daily helping of satirical sneering over London’s failures as host of the Summer Games. “I’ve got in mind something fairly tongue-in-cheek . . . and exaggerated for effect,” said Ian Prior, the editor who pitched it to me.
The column was a direct callback to British columnist Lawrence Donegan’s criticism of the Vancouver Games in 2010, when he claimed, two days in, that Vancouver was on pace to present the “worst Games ever.” The Guardian generated a lot of buzz with that piece, and in hopes of replicating a little more, they hired a Vancouverite—me—to write a column cheekily exacting revenge.
The Brits are known for their wit, their self-deprecating sense of humour and their satire, so I knew it would be tough to impress a veteran crowd. I foolishly assumed, however, that my column would at least be perceived in this vein, especially with a brief disclaimer explaining its origins. But it wasn’t. I was not seen as a satirist. I was seen as a troll.
Trolling, for the uninitiated, is the practice of saying cruel, offensive things for recreation. It’s in its heyday now, due to the anonymity of the Internet and because it’s a great way to generate buzz online. The 17-year-old British fellow who made headlines when he mocked Olympic diver Tom Daley for finishing fourth in one event? He was a troll. “You let your dad down, I hope you know that,” the teenager tweeted, in reference to the death of Daley’s father 14 months earlier.
I didn’t feel I had anything in common with this kid. When a local cyclist was struck and killed by a London media bus, I thought about incorporating it, especially since the British press had excoriated Vancouver over the death of the Georgian luger in 2010. But I couldn’t bring myself to mock a death.
I tried to keep things light, deftly treating everything from Mayor Boris Johnson’s adventure dangling from a stalled zipline to London’s logo and mascots as a full-blown affront to human decency. But the overwhelming response was vitriol—furious epithets and even a few death threats. “F–k off and die,” said one tweeter.
It wasn’t the British reception I’d expected, although some of the comments sure were. I was called a “bell-end” several times. One man criticized my “brand of cutesy slapdickery.” Two different people asked if I was “done throwing rattles from my pram.” One guy attacked me in a limerick, rhyming “rancour” with “wanker.”
Then the mood began to shift—not toward me, but toward the Games. Britain started winning, and after Andy Murray’s rout of Roger Federer gave the U.K. a surprise tennis gold, the country was aswoon with nationalism and the Games were instantly hailed as a success.
There was a lot less to criticize, so I decided to make my complaints even more exaggerated, ideally making my own, dedicated myopia the overarching joke. I hoped that, then, the British might notice that I was taking the piss, as they say.
I got one crack at it. On Sunday, Aug. 5, in column seven of an agreed-upon 12, I claimed the galvanizing British medal haul was undercut by the staggering embarassment of the Olympic store selling out of British flags. The Guardian didn’t find it funny. Nor did they find it necessary any longer. On Monday morning I was sacked.
“Truth is, the mood here has now swung fully into all-out self-congratulation,” said my editor, “and while [the column] was a great wheeze for the first week, it just doesn’t seem quite so apt any more.”
With triumphalism sweeping the streets, “The worst Olympics ever” no longer fit. The British press celebrated my dismissal as yet another sign of London’s triumph. “The nit-picking daily missives of Harrison Mooney . . . did not seem so relevant when it is now plain that London 2012 is a smashing success,” wrote Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail, with five days left to go in the Games.
In the end, the whole experience showed me that hosting the Olympics is no funny business. In fact, the British embargo on humour didn’t return until the Games were basically over, when Eric Idle was allowed to take the stage during the closing ceremony and sing, “Life’s a piece of s–t.”
Had he sang it a week earlier, I suspect he’d have been fired.