The Olympics were not perfect – but showed why sport matters

For anyone who grew up in the 1970s, London 2012 has been an odd affair. One look at the medal table to see ‘Team GB’ in third place has prompted us 40-somethings to do a double take and mutter ‘You what?’ Those of us reared on low expectations of our nation’s sporting endeavours and the games in general, have witnessed a joyous, uplifting and slightly bonkers demonstration that sometimes, sport really can be A Good Thing.

Four decades ago, the games were lumbered with a browbeaten image and provided a strangely comforting assurance of Britain’s place in the world. We tried but weren’t very good at it, grabbing the odd isolated success while leaving the serious stuff largely to the superpowers who exploited the games for overt political ends.

Politicians are, naturally, still at it. The Olympics were conceived as a political act, after all. But in a makeover so dramatic even Gok Wan would admit defeat, Britain now ranks as one of the world’s top nations in terms of medal hauls. Not only that, the country earned its firsts across a variety of disciplines. For all the justifiable amusement of dancing horses, British sportspeople are actually pretty good at this running, jumping, cycling and rowing and boxing lark.

The games were a huge success, but not just in the triumphs for Team GB. This past fortnight has been an extravaganza of participation, excitement, and spectacle – and all revolving around sport. Millions of people joined in gleeful experiences, were touched by the disappointment of defeat and, whether in the venues or at home, became part of those mass events that create a time and place in history. It may seem trite and sentimental but for a couple of weeks, for those of us who wanted to we really could revel in something to unite rather than divide.

Not that it was all perfectly choreographed sweetness and light. There were plenty of things to dislike and criticise – not least the demand from some quarters to forbid others to dislike and criticise. Danny Boyle’s occasionally moving and wholly entertaining opening ceremony reminded us that the right to be sceptical, irreverent and contrary is a feature of what we loosely define as a British ‘character’ – and indeed there is no such thing as single point of view. We rightly cherish difference, and those who express it. We might not agree, for example, with everything in Mike Marquese’s counter to the nationalistic and corporatized games-frenzy but it provided some welcome balance. The Olympics weren’t perfect – that is an impossibility – and dissenters who wanted to have a dig surely had the right to do so.

Other aspects grated. The ticketing carve-up was a huge frustration along with the sense that too much of the games were reserved for those with the right connections and the funds. The ongoing corruption of organised corporate sport was sidelined, and I found some of the patriotic fervour overcooked and unnecessary. There was a bit too much of a vain and desperate need to be liked and congratulated.  Britain on occasion became the Samantha Brick of international relations.

The media’s treatment of the games could have been better. Not in the presentation, which was comprehensive and by and large informative, and entertaining, but in terms of journalistic rigour. Joining in the fun and emotion is fine, but there needed to be more detachment. The mix of self-congratulation and surprise at being able to organise the games was also misplaced. For all its problems Britain is a rich, modern country with centuries of infrastructural development to call on. If the world’s seventh largest economy can’t organise a two week-bash in one of the planet’s most accessible cities than there is something seriously wrong. 

Some of us also felt out of step with the universal lauding of the volunteer games makers. Not in their devotion and good natured charm but in the concept of unpaid labour. Seeing young people working punishing long hours for free is an obscenity in an event in which so much money sloshes around. It surely won’t be long before those with an agenda to pursue start hailing the volunteer army as a means to promote their own self-interest and decry the low-paid and disadvantaged.

Oh look, it’s already happened. David Cameron has predictably tried to make capital out of the games, rehashing the busted flush of the ‘big society’ and citing the Olympics as proof of the value of competition, while taking a cheap shot at state-school teachers and the culture of ‘anti-competitiveness’. It is a facile and manipulative argument that deliberately misses the point. It may be worth noting that when the creed of winner takes all was at its height, Britain performed poorly in the Olympics.

The PM wasn’t the only one, of course. It was inevitable that the main parties’ politicians, regardless of stripe, would seek to claim the games as justification for their own narrow aims. Equally predictable has been the lazy comparisons drawn between the supposed refreshing ‘honesty’ of the competitors and the behaviour of footballers. The Olympics gave anti-football snobs an open goal to drone on about ‘role models’ and how footballers don’t deserve their success and riches. Which is shorthand for resentment that supposedly scumbag working class oiks can earn big money.

But the positives outweigh the gripes. The ‘30th Olympiad’, as my hitherto indifferent friend is now blithely calling it, was an overwhelmingly enjoyable occasion.  And that hints at something broader. People everywhere were captivated by sport. Not everyone, but enough to make it significant. Whether there will be a legacy or not is for another day when we can properly evaluate its longer-term impact. So too the question of whether it was worth the apparent £9.3 billion it cost to put it together.

In the short term the Olympics has had a more immediate value. It wasn’t simply about the winning, nor the individual. One of the notable things about the breathless interviews with wide-eyed competitors was the near universal desire to pass on thanks to coaches, family members, supporters, spectators and ‘everyone’. This was recognition that even for individuals grabbing the glory, it was a whole array of people who made it possible. Whether for the solo competitors or those in the team events, there was clear acknowledgement that much of the games was about people working together for shared goals.

Sport enraptured people for two weeks, unified lots of them, and made plenty happy. A story is being told of Seb Coe travelling home on the tube and meeting a ‘games maker’ who turned out to be a doctor who had treated victims of the 7/7 bombings. The doctor told Coe that he had seen the worst in people in 2005, but now the best in 2012, all thanks to the Olympics. That’s a pretty decent way to show that sport, sometimes, does matter.

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About adampowley

Journalist and author.
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