What does twenty quid get you? You could fill a quarter of your car’s tank. A couple of tickets to the cinema, maybe.
Not a lot.
But earlier this week, when I took Kid A and Amnesiac to the Olympic swimming heats, I discovered that it’s possible to obtain far, far more for such a relatively small sum.
We were lucky in last year’s Olympic ballot: we got something. Four tickets to a morning of swimming heats; the cheapest of the cheap seats. Twenty quid each.
Fast forward to last week. The kids were, as I’d hoped, off-the-chart excited. Olympic mascots had been cuddled every night in the build-up, Team GB t-shirts were worn with pride; even having to get up at half five seemed only to add to the sense of occasion.
The whole day itself was cut through with reminders and signs of what was, and of what will be.
From the cable car crossing the Thames, I saw the office where I’d been working when the games had been awarded to London, and from where we could see the patch of waste ground that would become home to the Olympic Park.
I remembered how I’d thought about a then 18-month old Kid A and looked forward to the day seven summers later when I could bring her to this corner of east London, to a home Olympics; wondering what she would be like as a person then, and what she would make of it all.
And then, poking out in the south London distance between the two tallest towers in Canary Wharf, we saw the Shard – the most potent symbol in my home country of my new home’s global ambitions. When the original funding for Europe’s tallest building ran dry, the Qatari Investment Fund stepped in to ensure completion. As a statement of intent, it doesn’t get much bolder.
All of which turned my thoughts to the fourth ticket we had been allocated last summer. Who could have predicted back then what Mrs LC’s excuse would be for non-attendance?
So in her place came my dad, and the four of us had a fantastic morning in the Aquatics Centre. Yes, it was a very partisan British crowd, but cut with strong blocks of support for the Irish, the Dutch, the USA and Brazilians – the perfect Olympics mix, in other words.
The seats were way up in the gods – what else do you expect for twenty quid? – but they gave us an excellent overview of the whole pool. It felt like we could just tumble forward into the water. The session was slick, the events varied, the atmosphere incredible.
And then, the star of our session: the greatest Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, in the first round heats of the 100m Butterfly. This is a man who has won more Olympic medals than anyone else. More golds. More Olympic medals in three Games than India has won, ever. Not to mention 153 other countries.
The stats are as mind boggling as they are unsurpassable. He may have only been in action for less than a minute, but it was the one minute everyone seemed to be waiting for.
And with good reason: not just to see him swim live, but for how he swam what should otherwise have been a totally ordinary race. At the halfway turn, he was lying in eighth place – that’s dead last to you and me. I had to double check to make sure I was watching the right lane, because this wasn’t what I was expecting to see.
But then he flicked a switch, woke up, got into gear, turned on the rockets – whatever – and just glided through the final length like it wasn’t there. And by the time it was all over, he’d won. Only just, mind, but won all the same. From last to first in 50m.
To me, this was astonishing enough and worth the price of admission on its own: a true great showing exactly what he’s capable of.
But Kid A had seen something else in that final length. And when, on the journey home, my dad asked her about her favourite part of her day, she’d had enough time to process and verbalise it.
Her debut ride on a cable car took second place, but her top choice – totally unprompted – completely blew me away.
“Michael Phelps,” she said, which was fair enough. “When he was coming last at half way, I saw him believe in himself. He knew he was faster than everyone else, and he wanted to prove it.”
I was, and remain, astonished by her insight. She didn’t just see a guy win a race. She saw someone who could perform better than they were, who knew they were capable of more than they were giving.
I have no idea at what point in her future I will need to remind Kid A of what she saw that morning, but it’s already tucked away, ready to be deployed when she doubts her own abilities, when she’s forgotten what she’s capable of.
So for that, I’ll always be grateful to Mr Phelps.
Last week, Kid A wanted to be a forensic scientist. This week, an Olympic swimmer, or an “Olympic…anything-er”. Next week, who knows?
The what isn’t important; the dismantling of limitations to what she thinks is possible, is.
It’s one of the reasons why we’re about to move to another country, culture and climate. To show both kids that they can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone.
And her answer to a seemingly innocuous question tells me that we might just have made the right move.
All the talk in the build-up to the Games has been of its legacy, of inspiring a generation.
At twenty quid, Kid A’s Olympic ticket might have been cheap, but its value may well prove to be incalculable.