Turning the Games into a political podium

Britain’s liberal elite politicised the Olympics far more than Beijing did in 2008.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
Editor

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While the likes of Blake, Bolt and Farah thrilled global audiences by going for gold at London 2012, Britain’s less fit opinion-forming classes were pursuing a less glorious goal: the use of the Olympics as a podium from which to crow about their victory in the Culture Wars.

From the flurry of fanboy commentary that followed Danny Boyle’s am-dram opening ceremony to the insistence that the Games represented the coming to fruition of the post-Diana dream of a new, less stuffy Britain, the urge to politicise the Games has been intense. That the political classes have sought so shamelessly to usher in ‘another kind of Britain’ on the back of the Games speaks volumes about their desperate need for a new national narrative, and their disillusionment with the democratic route to social overhaul.

Normally we frown upon elites that heap their political obsessions on to mass sporting events. We think of Hitler turning the Berlin Games into an advert for Aryan superiority (a vision shot down by Jesse Owens) or of the Beijing opening ceremony’s thousands of fantastically coordinated drummers and boastful history lesson, described by one British hack last week as ‘crypto-fascist’. And yet, Britain’s ostensibly liberal observers thought nothing of turning 2012 into an advert for their own allegedly superior way of life and thinking.

The tone was set by Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt, who described Boyle’s opening ceremony as the ‘march past’ – that is, victory parade – of his side in the Culture Wars. The ceremony was proof, said Hunt, that ‘the left took victory in the Culture Wars’, and moreover that a New Britain was being born: if the Queen’s Jubilee celebrated a ‘staid and nostalgic national identity’, this ceremony ‘offered an attractively contradictory, complicated, and above all creative conception of these Isles of Wonder’.

There has since been a concerted effort to turn the ‘bonkers’ opening ceremony into a new national narrative. Somewhat defensively, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland insists that it is ‘not just Guardian types’ who are exalting in the new political vision provided by both the ceremony and the multicultural message of the Games that followed – the whole nation is, apparently, recognising that ‘we have glimpsed another kind of Britain’, and that we should ‘love the country we have become – informal, mixed, quirky – rather than the one we used to be… reactionary’.

Some are now claiming that the Games represent the further consolidation of the emotional atmosphere that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997. Shortly after the opening ceremony ended and the nation’s leader-writers went mental for it, I described it as ‘another Diana moment’, in which we were all expected to embrace the ‘New Britain’ and show the correct emotions… or else. I got flak for that. Yet we are now informed by serious commentators that just as ‘the mourning of the death of Diana… was a marker of a shift in culture’, so have the Games been; that the Games continued a trend that has been occurring ‘ever since the death of Princess Diana… the stiff upper lip has [given] way to grins and trembles’; that the Games echoed ‘the Death of Diana’, only now we’re ‘a nation bound in apparent collective joy rather than apparent collective grief’.

The resurrection of the Diana mourning meme to describe the post-Games climate captures both the shallowness and authoritarianism of the new national narrative promoted by the Olympic politicisers. Just as the media-celebrated cult of public mourning post-Diana represented more of a reaction against a deathly Old Britain than it did a new vision, so the liberal elite’s politicisation of the Games is really about railing against what they hate about the past than giving us a glimpse of their preferred future. The Games have allowed us to bid farewell to ‘reactionary Britain’, we’re told; to turn our backs on the ‘meanness, racism, imperial shame’ of Old Britain. Where Beijing’s political operators at least used their ceremony and Games to say something about what they believe in, Britain’s merely exploited ours to holler about what they don’t believe in, about what makes them uncomfortable.

And just as the Diana cult demanded emotional conformism, with those who refused to mourn with sufficient vigour facing censure, so the opening-ceremony cult likewise insists on mass, uncritical genuflection. That is why the one public figure who slated the ceremony – the Tory MP Aidan Burley, who called it ‘leftie multicultural crap’ – has been so widely demonised, described as ‘incompat[ible] with modern Britain’ and as inhabiting an ‘uncelebrated podium’. Similar to the post-Diana climate, in which we were told that Britain had become more emotionally open and yet where certain non-conformist emotions were frowned upon, the politicised post-Games climate insists we have witnessed the birth of a more diverse, tolerant and inclusive Britain, yet it’s one where too much diversity of thought will not be tolerated or included.

That the new national narrative is more an expression of discomfort with the past than a cohering vision for the present or the future was perfectly summed up in the opening ceremony itself. What that Channel 4-style political stunt communicated more than anything else was ambivalence about the two pillars of modern Britain – Empire and Industry.

Empire was turned into a piece of irony, almost a work of fiction, with Queen Elizabeth II sent packing from a helicopter with James Bond. And Industry was depicted as the despoiler of an older rural idyll. It is the contemporary elite’s estrangement from those two colossal components of modern Britain that explains their, and the opening ceremony’s, voodoo-like celebration of the National Health Service: that institution, despite its innumerable faults, has stepped into the gaping chasm left by the demise of Empire and the decline of Industry, to become the one thing that defines Who We Are and which allows us to express what one commentator calls ‘soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive’ patriotism.

It might present itself as leftish, open-minded and emotionally in-touch, but in truth, the new national narrative cynically attached like a carbuncle to London’s fantastic Games really expresses fashionable metropolitan disdain for both the rulers of Old Britain (Empire) and the visionaries and workingmen of Old Britain (Industry). Ensconced in their cut-off, cushioned offices, today’s political cliques proffer a new national identity that both circumvents the gains and events of the past and which also seeks to get around pesky public debate in the here and now – by bizarrely insisting that a new nation can be magicked up through a three-hour opening ceremony and two-week sporting event rather than through anything so vulgar as public debate, political clashes, democracy.

So cocky are the ‘victors’ in the Culture Wars that not only are they willing to politicise something like the Games – they’re also happy to gloat about the fact that some people didn’t even realise they had politicised them. ‘[M]ost observers did not interpret the opening ceremony through a political lens’, said one Olympic politiciser. ‘Perhaps that was part of its skill. The most seductive art persuades without you realising you are being persuaded.’ Rough translation: you will become a good citizen of the New Britain, whether you like it or not, and whether you realise it or not.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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