Friday, 3 August 2012

Whatever Happened to the Olympic Games?

As we approach the halfway point of the 2012 Olympics, it’s fair to say that it’s gone pretty well so far. The successful Opening Ceremony set the tone and the organisers have plenty of grounds to be broadly pleased with how the Games have progressed.

The expected transport chaos has largely failed to materialise though Monday night’s closure of Cannon Street Station and a suspension of the Central Line this morning owing to signal failure showed just what a tightrope (or zip wire) the Games organisers are walking.

Major problems on the Jubilee and Central Line when the Olympic Stadium is fully up and running (as it will be from this evening) have the potential to cause the kind of disruption and negative publicity Messrs Johnson (whose populist cheerleading has worked well for him so far) and Coe will be seeking to avoid. IF the Tube runs into trouble, Boris Johnson will have no hiding place and his reputation could be badly damaged very quickly.

Not everyone in London is doing well out of the Olympics – the dire warnings of transport chaos combined with the desire of a sizeable minority to head out of town for their holidays despite the pleadings of Government and business to stay at home have turned West and Central London to a “ghost town” in terms of footfall and business.

Belatedly, there is a propaganda campaign being orchestrated to get people to come into town though I’ve argued that a lot of these businesses could attract more customers with lower prices and better service and they have lived for years doing well while the East of the City has been in decline.

The other aspect of London 2012 which offends me is the coverage of the sport itself. Not, I wish to emphasise, the quantity of the coverage available on the BBC which has provided a rare spotlight for any number of sports which rarely enjoy terrestrial television coverage but the attitude of the media to the results and the competitors.

It is surely disappointing that an event which is the very epitome of globalism and which should transcend national borders has been turned into a tawdry excuse for national virility. The achievements of British (or the ludicrous alternatives “Brit” or “Team GB”) athletes and others are praised to the skies and the achievements of athletes from other countries grudgingly accepted or, more frequently, ignored.

As a historian, I find it deeply depressing that barely a century almost to the day after millions of young men marched off to war singing and completely unaware of the horror awaiting them (and we talk about the trenches but there were tens of thousands of casualties in the opening weeks of the war before a single trench had been dug) waving flags and full of pointless patriotism, we are simply substituting the field of the Olympics for the field of battle.

We cheer our own side and wheel out outdated inaccurate and offensive stereotypes and caricatures to denigrate the sports men and women of other countries. The British loser is always “plucky” or there is an inference that somehow they were “robbed” or “cheated” of what was rightfully theirs. The stench of sour grapes and jingoism pervades so much of the coverage that I have stopped watching events with British competitors.

Do you know Zhang Ji-Ke?

I’m not surprised you don’t know.

I watched him play two sublime games of table tennis yesterday to win the men’s individual gold medal. Had he been British, this achievement would have been lauded to the skies Instead, it’s hardly mentioned.

Sir Chris Hoy put up a remarkable performance to win a gold medal yesterday and his Olympic achievements are the stuff of legend. But would we be so effusive were he an American or a New Zealander? I’m sure we wouldn’t – we accept the achievement of Michael Phelps but then it’s hard to ignore twenty medals isn’t it?

Let me be honest – I don’t have a patriotic bone in my body.

Yes, I’m hugely fortunate to live in a wealthy country, a beautiful country, one with a rich history and culture but I’m also aware there are other countries with an equal beauty, history and culture. To place one country above all others simply because of an accident of birth is simply ludicrous as is the notion that in the 21st Century, we measure our national identity, well-being and virility in terms of how good we are at sport.

Mind you, it’s probably better than some other kind of measurement such as GDP growth or literacy or child poverty or education or social mobility....

So I won’t get ecstatic with each Gold Medal we win. Yes, I’ll admire and respect the performance, dedication and sheer hard work of the individual or team but there are so many others in these Games who deserve the same recognition and won’t get it because they don’t wear the correct kit or speak the right language or sing the same Anthem.

The Olympics were meant to be a celebration of a global identity and spirit not a re-affirmation of petty national identity, characteristics and stereotypes. Nor should they be prostituted on the altar of commercial gain – “sponsors” such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Samsung should be compelled to give their products away for free – why not free Big Macs, Cheeseburgers or Coke? Why not provide food for the hungry and needy within a stone’s throw of the Olympic Stadium rather than gorge spectators by overcharging while presumably providing the favoured VIPs with anything and everything for nothing?

Instead, a few of our more photogenic athletes are able to sell their souls to hawk any old product willing to give them some money and recognition.

Where that fits into the Olympic spirit I’m not sure.

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