Friendship Begins With the Letter ‘B’

It all began with the letter ‘B’.

Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh and Barbados.

Those were the names of the four countries suspended above our heads while a billion people watched on their TV screens.

But first, let me take you back ten years.

The ABCs of our present-tense dystopian novel — Alexa, Brexit, Covid and Donald Trump — had not yet been written. Dating apps were not the way you met people and most of us had never sat in an Uber or electric car. What a difference a decade makes.

While you might remember ‘Super Saturday’, Usain Bolt’s triple gold or Phelps’ twentieth, I will always remember that summer for igniting a friendship from the (Olympic) flames.

Ten years ago, I was a tender twenty-year-old, soon to graduate and embark on real life. I volunteered to take part in the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies, signing up to the open auditions in East London on a whim. I had free time to give and a swelling sense of excitement that the Olympics was being hosted in the city I was living; surely a once in a lifetime opportunity?

Studying at Queen Mary, the closest University to the Olympic Village, it only took 30 minutes to walk to the audition venue at Three Mills Studios in Bow. When I arrived I couldn’t believe how far others had come, travelling from Scotland or the Isle of Wight to volunteer their free time that summer. It suddenly hit me that this was a big deal. I might be part of one of the greatest shows on earth, something to tell my future grandchildren about.

I was invited to several auditions over the following months: a mass ‘dance’ audition following choreography to Beyonce and a more intimate ‘acting’ audition that involved reading a poem to Danny Boyle. I made him giggle by reading it in a sombre and dramatic way, while everyone else appropriately read-the-room and did a more cheerful number.

Then, after weeks of waiting, I received an email. I was to be cast in the opening and closing ceremonies as someone who would… walk.

While I was flattered they’d spotted my special talent for being able to walk in a straight line (or even round corners!), I was a little disappointed to be selected for a skill that involved, well, little-to-no skill.

Our official title was ‘Placard Bearers’ and we were a group of 205 young women of a similar age and height who would lead out each nation’s Olympic teams in the ‘Parade of Nations’. You might remember us as the people wearing those quirky dresses with people’s faces on, walking alongside each country’s chosen flag-bearer.

Each week we assembled under relentless drizzle in a Dagenham car park or inside a shielded side room of the Olympic Stadium, waiting our turn to practise. Over a combined 250 hours of rehearsals that summer, we had no choice but to get to know the people sat, alphabetically, next to us. As I was assigned to Bangladesh, it meant I was always sat next to the ladies allocated to Bahrain, Bahamas and Barbados — also known as Clare, Rupal and Claire.

In any other reality I would never have met these women. While it was a common sense of adventure (and crosswords) that brought us together, we hail from very different backgrounds. Clare is a print artist from Somerset, Rupal is an American ex-CIA agent turned entrepreneur, Claire is a business development manager from Birmingham, and I am a Nottinghamshire-born filmmaker. In an age of fleeting online or peer-age only friendships (there is a 12 year age gap between the youngest and oldest of us) ours is relatively rare.

The rehearsal waiting room in the Olympic Stadium

Back then we were three ambitious young women living in London completing MBAs, trainee schemes and beginning our fledgling careers. Over the last ten years we have attended each other’s weddings, birthdays, book launches and art fairs. We have watched each other start businesses, move abroad, make films, deal with tricky housemates, redundancy and heartbreak. We have started new hobbies together, held each other’s newborns and been confidantes in trying times.

Every Christmas — wherever we are living — we never fail to meet for the seasonal show at Sadler’s Wells, it’s now a long-standing tradition.

Claire, Rupal and Clare unknowingly taught me about the intricacies and importance of female friendship at a time when I was just learning how to exist as an adult in the world. Now, in my early 30s, I realise they have seen me through the entire decade of my twenties, a stable and reliable presence throughout a torrent of ups and downs, and I really cannot imagine life without them.

On July 27th 2012, we each stepped out into a packed Olympic stadium amidst a crowd of 80,000 people and another 900 million watching from home.

We had one simple job: Do Not Fall Over.

Striding out onto the track, I remember coaxing my jellified legs while hoisting my involuntarily shaking lips into a huge smile. Despite plenty of rehearsals, the intensity of the moment literally took my breath away. Nothing can prepare you for a moment like that— the wall of noise, the cameras hovering above you, the voice in your earpiece telling you to keep up the pace, as not to slow down the rest of the parade. The atmosphere was alight, every performer in their place, a colossal sense of community.

Two weeks later, we did it again — this time donning red leather jackets, sequinned trousers, scraped back hair extensions and humongous false eyelashes — walking out alongside our flag-bearers to the sound of One Direction in the distance.

Twitter described us as ‘Austin Powers dominatrix sexbots’ amongst other equally tasteful comments. But we didn’t care, we got to high-five the Spice Girls, take photos with Russell Brand and I even hugged Ed Sheeran. Somehow, all our teenage dreams came true in one night.

I learned the power of saying yes to something unknown. The four of us had decided to sacrifice internships and holidays abroad in favour of something more magical; the entire world uniting on our doorstep through the universal language of sport.

We were part of something ripe and juicy — an event that, for a few months, extended beyond the confines of the Olympic stadium, seeping into an otherwise politically divided country — particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 London riots — and suspending us all into a rare and blissful collective state of hope and solidarity.

But in the decade since, I worry that we have developed immunity to those two crucial states of being. Brexit, pandemic politics and another potential Scottish referendum are sobering reminders of our unpredictable and deeply un-unified ‘United Kingdom’.

Watching a re-run of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony might stir different emotions today: hundreds of hospital beds lined up, a looming grim reaper figure. Danny Boyle’s memorable spectacle paid homage to a much-cherished NHS; perhaps the only thing we, the British people, feel defiantly patriotic about.

© Kevin Van Paasen

So let us not forget that same loyalty to our struggling health service in the more poignant and desperate place we find ourselves today. In the decade since the London olympics, the NHS has been further strained by the horror of the pandemic, Brexit-fuelled staff shortages and is now being privatised by stealth. Loyalty and despair are not enough.

The industrial revolution segment of the show might also remind us that climate change is ever-more pressing and urgent than it was ten years ago. Today, as I watch Rupal and Claire’s young children grow up, it strikes me that we cannot lose sight of what is most important, we cannot loosen our grip on what we want for future generations.

To celebrate the 10-year-anniversary this week, we’re at a 3-day retreat in Hertfordshire, as we reminisce about those rehearsal days practising our best walking. But we’re also doing our best at putting the world to rights, as usual, and continue questioning what the next ten or fifty years might hold for ourselves, our children and the planet. But whatever happens, I’ve no doubt our future grandchildren will be telling us off for insisting on getting out those tight sequin trousers from the attic again.

For me, the experience will always be a heartening illustration of happenstance — illuminating an improbable friendship that has stood the test of time. The kind of serendipity that strikes like a lightning bolt, imprinting you forever, if only you seize the opportunities when they arise. So thank you Danny Boyle (and your talented team) for inadvertently introducing us.

Coincidentally, the retreat we are staying at is a ‘community hotel’ called ‘Birch’ and all the staff are walking around with letter ‘B’ badges pinned to their uniforms. The universe has conspired for us once again.

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Rebecca Coxon

Rebecca Coxon

Documentary filmmaker and writer. Absorbing and exploring.