My first trip to London this year was not supposed to have anything to do with the Olympics, but it ended up as one of those walks where echoes of Olympics past and future kept on popping up.
I went with my family to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, and then on a self-guided walk around Marylebone and then down Regent Street to Charing Cross, looking for sites related to the Holmes stories, and for the places where Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, lived and worked. It was a great trip – all of my family are fans of the Victorian sleuth, and the walk brought things to life for everyone.
And yet, in London’s third Olympic year, we kept on coming across sporting artefacts and links. These were obvious for 2012: it’s hard to move anywhere in London at the moment without seeing advertisements for the Games, or the logo adorning delivery vans and posters on the Underground. And in Trafalgar Square, towards the end of our walk, we had a good look at the 2012 clock, counting down to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on one side and the Olympic Games on the other. Like the other visitors, I queued up to have my picture taken by the clock, a modern Olympic site in the heart of tourist London. We also walked, unintentionally, along a tiny part of the 2012 Olympic Marathon route.
The historic links were perhaps less obvious. For me, they were echoes and resonances rather than bold and branded statements like the 2012 clock, and they chimed perfectly with the approach to city walking advocated by Iain Sinclair in Lights Out for the Territory: “Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself.”
There was Conan Doyle himself, the man whose life and fiction we were trailing, who was a big supporter of the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He reported on them for the Daily Mail, and while his alleged appearance on the track next to the Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri has been disproved by Peter Lovesey, he was certainly one of the journalists responsible for creating the myths of that great race. Then, on Regent Street, we walked past the University of Westminster’s elegant building and its memorial plaque to Quintin Hogg. Hogg was a Victorian promoter of muscular Christianty, and the Regent Street Polytechnic which he founded, the predecessor of the current University of Westminster, had sport and exercice at its heart. The Polytechnic’s sports clubs were to provide countless Olympians. Hogg himself practiced what he preached, playing football for the Wanderers, Old Etoinians, and Scotland.
Sports tourism is about so much more than commercial stadium tours, impressive and interesting as they can be. It can also be accidental, when, like Sinclair and in the spirit of the flaneuer, we walk the city and notice incidental features that can tell us alternative and half-hidden stories about the city’s past.