Some time after nine on the final Thursday of the 2012 Paralympic Games, the Nell Gwynne Pub just off the Strand in central London fell quiet. The music was switched off and the manager turned up the television, mounted high on the south wall of the tiny pub, just above the jukebox and to the left of the staircase leading to the basement toilets. Channel 4 was about to broadcast the final of the men’s 100m Paralympic sprint. Home-crowd favourite and Team GB representative Jonnie Peacock was in the starting gate.
It was a marquee event in the final week of the second stint of the London Games, which by most accounts were a roaring success. It was hard to find tickets to watch the Paralympic athletes, who in years past have competed in empty arenas. Organizers were compelled to make more tickets available after a massive surge in public interest following the success of the able-bodied Olympics. Some of the new tickets were for those who simply wanted to catch a glimpse of Olympic Park. One doesn’t need to go far to find how effectively the Olympics silenced that stereotypical British moan. By and large, the thing went off without a hitch – a result that might not have been expected, given the scale of the event in such a busy, crowded city and all that negative speculation.
In the months leading to the Games, mainstream naysayers worried about traffic snarls, security details (including the mounting of surface-to-air missiles on local apartment buildings) and tickets. And then there were those who worried the Games were a sign of the End Days.
The latter fears were the strangest and were found, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the internet, where these things tend to build steam, and particularly in videos uploaded to YouTube. The theme therein was predominantly that the Games were another step in a massive global conspiracy for which the end goal is either the enslavement or destruction of humanity. Some thought the Illuminati were involved. Others figured it was the Freemasons. Or perhaps the Zionists. Maybe it was all of them. Whatever their shape, the theories were helped by the fact the Games were being held in 2012, a seminal year in mainstream and fringe apocalyptic speculation thanks to an ancient Mayan calendar that some suggest notes the end of time will fall somewhere around Dec. 21, 2012.
It has been a rough year. Global droughts, financial crises and revolutions have worked conveniently into a narrative that the world is becoming increasingly dark and awful and on the brink of something not easily defined, but beyond our control. The Olympic apocalypse videos speak to this as much as any other end-of-days theory. To be there when humanity comes to a crashing halt will be a convenient escape for the disenfranchised, who are unable to envision another way forward.
Back at the Nell Gwynne on Thursday, every pair of eyes watched Jonnie Peacock power to the finish on one flesh-and-bone leg and one carbon-fibre blade. Around Britain, some 6.3 million joined the viewing. Peacock won handily. There were cheers in the bar.
The next morning, across London at the Olympic Park, blind women competed in the long jump. When instructed, the capacity crowd sat in almost complete silence so jumpers could better hear their guide’s signals. World records were broken.
It seems strange to consider the apocalyptic theories now that it’s all worked out. We’re all still here, after all. But the YouTube videos, like the Games – particularly perhaps the Paralympics – tell us something wonderful about humanity. We often have agency, should we choose to use it. We can, and do, push boundaries and limits. Circumstances may become dire, and maybe we do continually await our destruction. But time and again, we find ways to fight it – often together.