4 mins

Hilary Bradt talks: Olympic spirit

The founder of Bradt Travel Guides – and now an MBE – talks about what makes the Olympics so special

Close Up of the 2012 Logo on the Olympic Torch (Jon Candy)

A journalist contacted me the other day with this question: “Where would be your ideal place to escape to during the Olympics, and why?”

My response was that I would be ‘escaping’ from Devon to the Olympic stadium. Why, I wondered, are people looking for escape when we are lucky enough to be hosting one of the most heart-warming, exciting and genuinely international events in the world?

Perhaps if I hadn’t been to the Mexico Olympics in 1968 I wouldn’t be such an enthusiast, but I can honestly say that it was one of the highlights of my life. I was living in California at the time and went with a group from the British Society, which sounds as though it would be horribly nationalistic, but it wasn’t.

Yes, there were plenty of political elements. One of my enduring memories was of the Czech gymnast, Věra Čáslavská, being cheered at every appearance (the games were held just after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia). And these Games are still remembered for the black power salute given on the winners’ podium by the American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos. But there were also stories of noble defeats. Like Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari, who set a new record for the Marathon: the slowest. He fell and injured himself during the early stages of the race but – declaring later that “my country didn’t send me to start the race, they sent me to finish it!” – he limped on, crossing the line (to warm applause from the few remaining spectators) an hour after the other competitors had left the stadium.

There will be similar stories in London. They will involve countries you’ve barely heard of, whose governments have managed to send a ‘team’ of one or two people, bursting with pride at representing their country, however remote their chances of a medal.

Visiting the Mexico Olympics gave me the opportunity to see something of Mexico City, and I liked what I saw enough to return the following year. Now it is the turn of other nations to visit Britain, perhaps for the first time, and I hope they like what they see. Because isn’t that the question we are most frequently asked when we travel? “How do you like our country?” And we see their pleasure when we answer positively.

So, is my urge to tell people not to go away in July appropriate for a travel magazine?

I think so. Travel isn’t about escaping – or it shouldn’t be. It’s about expanding. It’s about – dare I say it – brotherhood and the things that unite us rather than those that divide.

This you’ll find if you stay at home and watch the Olympics on TV. And if you are lucky enough to have tickets, you will feel it in bucketloads in the Stadium, or Greenwich Park, or the Velodrome, or the streets of London along the Marathon route.

To help you get into the mood, how about watching the Olympic Flame being carried through your area? I went to extremes – literally – and watched it arrive and depart from Land’s End. Then I pottered back to Devon on a series of local buses. It took two or three days. And, yes, it was travel.

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