We had agonised about going to Belgium following the Paris terrorist attacks. Schools had cancelled trips to the French capital and we had learned of one which pulled out of its exchange programme with their partner school in Lille early in the New Year. Paranoia and fear was running high even before the Belgian attacks.
Then the atrocities happened. Three days before we were due to take three synchronised ice skating teams to compete at the last competition of the season, the Kempen Trophy in Turnhout, around 60 miles from Brussels where the attacks occurred leaving 34 people dead.
Surprisingly but impressively, the attitude among the junior teams was one of true grit. They wanted to skate. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office had advised of only essential travel to Brussels, but there were no similar alerts for the rest of the country. The alert was at ‘level 3’ and the advice was to remain vigilant and respond to the requests of the Belgian authorities. No different to London, then. In fact, the terror alert for London a few days after the Belgian attacks was ‘severe’ or in the words of the Met ‘real and serious’.
When my ex-husband dropped off my younger son, a day before we were due to set off, he asked ‘are you still going to Belgium’, and gave me that ‘ on what planet’ look.
It was my middle daughter who replied. ‘If there was a terrorist attack in London, we would still go.’ And one synchro mum’s response was even more pointed. ‘If there was a terrorist attack in London, would it stop us going to Slough to skate?’ Err, no.
Not that we needed any persuasion, but why did we not even consider cancelling just a few days after the country’s worst attacks in its history?
Do you know, I’m not even sure I know the answer.
Mostly, I think my daughter and synchro mum summed it up. But there has to be more to it than that. Ok, so we had all paid the best part of £500 to go and none of us are loaded so there’s a bit of working class mentality kicking in. However, it’s not just about the money.
At the end of the day, I think 99.9% of us are rational human beings. Three days after the terror attacks suffered by Belgium meant security was tighter than ever, arguably, making it the best time to travel.
After 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, security in both the US and UK was taken to a new level. Until the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the bombings in Brussels these cities had not been targets for terrorists in the same way. Our experience of 7/7 and the Americans of 9/11 changed us forever. Of course, we became more security conscious and both the emergency and security services adapted to what was then a new terror threat. But, I also think there was a distinctive shift in our psyche as a nation, if there is such a thing. It’s not that we think of terrorism as more commonplace, but more that we are quite determined that it won’t stop us from living our lives.
So, yes, undoubtedly, the British bulldog spirit influenced our attitude. But the synchro competition attracted teams from the Netherlands, France, Germany and Turkey, a country which itself had suffered from attacks in the days before the Belgian bombings, whose teams all still came to the competition. The Hungarian teams, though, pulled out on the day the attacks occurred.
So it’s not simply about being British. There’s more at play here than a nationalistic characteristic that we don’t kowtow to terrorism.
Perhaps, we, as human beings have much more in common than we like to think. Whatever our language, our skin colour, our religion or even lack of, perhaps, deep down, we are all made from sterner stuff. Perhaps that bulldog mentality is alive and well in most of us whatever our background, beliefs or country of origin.
Who knows? I certainly don’t. But there’s one thing of which I am sure – I am mightily proud that as a team, as a country, as a sport, as a continent, as a world, we didn’t allow terrorists to dictate our behaviour. We travelled to Belgium in the days following that country’s darkest hour. And I am damn glad we did because in so doing, as small our sporting tournament may have been on the grand scale of sporting occasions, I absolutely believe we made a difference. We didn’t let terrorists dictate our lives.
The one minute silence we observed at the competition on both days was poignant and moving. But ultimately it was the human spirit that won through; we can’t help it, it’s in our DNA. Knock us down and Belgian, British, French, American, Turkish, Pakistani, our fighting spirit materialises and it’s impossible to keep us down.
Going to Belgium made me proud to be British and proud to be part of the synchro community, but most of all, it made me proud to be human.