An Olympic-shaped hole in our society?
Everybody now agrees that the London 2012 Games showed Britain can ‘do big things’. So why did nobody believe that two months ago?
There is a lot of talk this week about how the London 2012 Games have shown the world that the UK, in the words of prime minister David Cameron, ‘can do big things and get them right’. Which rather begs the question: why did nobody in Britain appear to believe that just a few weeks ago, before the Games began?
Does anybody seriously think that two months of success in sport can make up for a generational failure of imagination within the political class? Maybe that makes sense if you believe that a bagful of gold medals can act as magic beans to seed economic beanpoles. If not, then the success of London 2012 – not unlike a British man finally winning a tennis major in the US Open – looks more like the exception than the rule.
To paraphrase the late Bill Shankly, the UK elite now seems to think that Olympic and Paralympic sport is not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that.
Since the Games ended in a blaze of glory and a huge victory parade, everybody has been making predictable noises about how the success and the spirit of the Games can somehow be used to transform every aspect of our society and our economy.
Cameron declared that the Games had not only ‘brought the country together’ but had equipped Britain to cope with the economic crisis:‘For countries to succeed in this competitive and difficult world, you need to have confidence that you can do big things and get them right [and] take on the best and beat the best, and I think the Olympics and Paralympics – we’ve absolutely done that as a country.’ Across the political spectrum at the Trades Union Congress, TUC leader Brendan Barber opined that ‘it’s right to celebrate the Olympics, but it’s even more important to learn from them. We can’t muddle through greening our economy – we need investment, planning and an Olympic-style national crusade’.
On the higher plane of Channel 4, presenter Clare Balding, the nation’s newly appointed mother confessor, piously closed the Paralympics with the announcement that the experience of the Games had laid the basis for transforming our collective mentality and soul and becoming ‘superhuman’: ‘In the coming weeks, months, years this will all only mean something if this has changed the way you think as well as the way you feel. We’ve seen what the human body is capable of, now it’s the turn of the human brain. Because this is not the end, this is just the beginning and because all of you who have watched and been a part of this, you’ve made us all feel not just human, but superhuman, and we want to carry on celebrating that.’
The more excitable media pundits went even further over the top. Simon Barnes of The Times captured the hyperbolic spirit of the moment, beginning his frontpage splash with the modest observation that, ‘Bliss was it in that summer to be alive, but to be in London was very heaven. It wasn’t the finest summer of sport we have ever known; it was much better than that. It was the finest celebration of humanity in a quarter-of-a-million years of our existence.’ The start of that is of course a play on William Wordsworth’s poem celebrating the French Revolution – an event which has helped to shape more than 200 years of world history, but obviously pales in comparison with a few weeks of exciting sport.
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Much of this overexcited nonsense will (hopefully) seem embarrassing even in a few days time. To say that is not in any way to denigrate the Games themselves. It is simply to observe that sport is different from society. Indeed, as I argued previously on spiked, it is precisely the ‘irrelevance’ of the Olympics to everyday life that makes them so inspiring and exhilarating, since they can take us out of our humdrum selves for a moment.
The way that so many now want to pretend that the London Games can provide the solution to our problems reveals, not the power of sport to transform the real world, but the weakness of political and social vision today. The mad notion that the Olympics and Paralympics might effectively do the job of saving the economy and uniting the nation shows how desperate those in high places are to fill the gap where our proper public and political life ought to be.
It is sometimes said that those of religious conviction are really trying to fill a more earthly need, and have a ‘God-shaped hole in their lives’. In a similar way, this looks as if there might be an Olympic-shaped hole in the heart of our society.
What is striking is the inconsistency underlying this sudden outbreak of post-Olympic visionaries. All the talk now is about how we have to think big, set our sights high and go for the gold standard, as in the Games. Yet who was talking like that a few weeks ago? As a major UK-based project of international significance, London 2012 went against the grain of our age. It was launched in an era when the wider culture has been all about reducing our horizons and lowering expectations, when we are lectured that small is beautiful and that the ‘sustainable’ beats the spectacular every time. There has seemed little appetite for doing anything big in British society in recent years, beyond the odd tall, sterile office building in the City of London.
This downbeat outlook even did its best to infect the Olympics. On an early visit to the Beijing Olympic sites, then London mayor Ken Livingstone made clear that London would not be erecting any ‘iconic’ buildings on the Chinese model, making it sound as if London 2012 might take place in a prefab. The London organisers won the Games by emphasising the ‘legacy’ of small flats and a big shopping centre it would leave behind, rather than their plans for a sporting spectacular. The emphasis was for years on how the London Games would be the ‘lowest carbon Olympics ever’, rather than the biggest and the best. What should have been seen as a great chance to go out and engage with the world instead became another pretext for the insecure British authorities to try to retreat into their shell, talking up the threat of international terrorism and warning us all to stay home rather than risk the London transport system.
Despite all of that, the Olympics went big and were a huge success of course, as many of us always knew the sport would be. Now they have all suddenly decided that the Games showed we can do the big things after all, and we should apply that lesson to the economy and everything else by doing ‘the Olympic thing’. Yet if the elites really believed in such an ethos, it would not have taken a combination of Mo Farah and Ellie Simmonds to persuade them of it.
It is the fact that the political class does not have a clue what to do about the big problems of the economic and social crisis that now has them playing the Games card at every opportunity. Olympic and Paralympic sport becomes a substitute for any ideas of substance. Talking loudly about the legacy of London 2012 becomes a sort of ersatz vision of the future.
It should be obvious enough, however, that the lack of leadership or vision in politics will not be overcome by making grand speeches about the Games. Contrary to what the new Tory Treasury minister claims, the moribund British economy will not be made dynamic by treating small businesses ‘like Olympic gold medallists’ (what, getting them to sign up for Strictly Come Dancing?). Nor is the glaring absence of any unifying sense of ‘Britishness’ today likely to be overcome by an enjoyable afternoon parade around the London sights.
This need not mean, as some more cynical commentators suggest, that we now have to forget about the glorious summer of sport and get ‘back to the grindstone’. The great sporting memories of the Olympics will live on – that is what the legacy of the Games is always primarily about. But that’s about it. To pretend that London 2012 can do something more to help us cope with the problems of everyday life can only make it harder still to face up to the harsh realities now looming back into
If we want to follow St Clare’s advice and see what the human brain is capable of, we might start by seeing if it can separate the thrill of top-level competitive sport from the struggle for a better society, distinguish between an emotional spasm and an economic policy, and stop confusing the success of the Olympics and Paralympics with a political vision. Those who fail that simple test risk sounding rather like a twenty-first-century version of Norman Tebbit, telling people to ‘get on your bike – like Sir Chris Hoy!’.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)