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Olympics Sets Off British Tears


You find out so much about a country, you know, when it's hosting the Olympics. It's almost as if the games lay bare a nation's soul. NPR's Philip Reeves says that is what's happening in Britain. He's finding the experience unnerving, as he explains, in this letter from the Olympics.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Shortly before these Games began, I saw an unusual interview on TV. It was with a middle-aged Englishman, wrapped in a British Union flag. He was very excited. He said he's going to spend the entire Games at home on his sofa with his wife, watching them on TV. This would be their summer vacation. Why are you so interested in the Olympics, the TV reporter inquired. Is it track sports you like or maybe gymnastics or rowing? No, it's not that, the man replied. It's because my wife and I, we both like crying.

Not so long ago, I returned to Britain after 20 years away. When I left this country, there wasn't a lot of crying. Teachers at my schools, in the '60s and '70s, never cried. I never saw my father cry. We cried as children, of course, in pain and protest. But the adults made it very clear to us that tears were a worthless currency, about as welcome in Britain as the euro is today. Sporting triumphs were rewarded with a firm handshake, a pat on the back and a small silver cup.

The last time the British wept like this, I was overseas. That was when Princess Diana died. They had good cause. Now, the Olympics have set them off again. British tears are flowing faster than their summer rain. I don't blame the athletes. They put themselves through hell. They're entitled to a little weep when they win or lose. But what about all those Brits, happily weeping away in the crowd? And what about all those sports commentators, who, when a Brit wins a medal, start tearing up, who are constantly asking people about how emotional they feel, about how much they're crying? It's as if these Games are a gigantic TV reality show, which I suppose, in a way, they are.

There's more to this, though. I suspect the British are crying in relief. Over the last few years, they've watched one villain after another parade across their TV screens - rotten bankers, thieving politicians, wicked media barons, incompetent cops, dishonest journalists. What a relief to find the country actually has some sporting heroes, even if, a week ago, most of us had no idea who most of these athletes are, and in a couple of months, we'll have forgotten their names. What's wrong with that? Nothing. But I find it disconcerting. You see, the English have a skeptical streak I rather like - an ability to raise an eyebrow, to exchange meaningful glances and wry smiles when they catch the whiff of something bogus. Where are all the skeptics now? The answer is they saw these Olympic Games coming. Being skeptics, they concluded - wrongly, as it's so far turned out - that London would be unbearably congested during the Games. They took off on vacation abroad, leaving all the bawlers behind on the sofa - and the bawlers are having a ball. Philip Reeves, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.