Success can be an oppressive thing. The relentless coverage of the London Olympics is a case in point.
Every Gold medal won, every Silver and every Bronze – it’s all trumpeted with the sort of mad passion of fanatics and people with nothing else to do. All the while, the vacantly hypnotic, owlish stare of Jessica Ennis blazes off every other bus shelter ad hoarding, wondering why you’re not getting behind the country….
Perhaps the UK is not used to relative ‘success’, and is over-reacting, much like a toddler that’s just had e-numbers for the first time. And yet, there is something ugly about the mania too, something utterly hysterical on the one hand and obsessed in the other, and -throughout – utterly conformist, as demonstrated by the UK team being referred to, rather jingoistically and certainly inaccurately, as ‘Team GB’.
It’s plain that the British don’t do success very well. The national character has developed various defence mechanisms in the face of defeat, like relentless pessimism, sacking the England manager and the sort of cynicism that is used in place of insight by the gormless.
But success goes to our heads, and makes us ugly. Look at the hubris of the Imperial period, the bone-headed idolisation of World War Two that continues to this day, the ugly swagger of the Yuppies and the high apogees of the syndrome: the shrill demagoguery of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. We’re much more likeable when we suck.
So let’s probe the fallacies that underpin the Olympic mania, that pervasive layer of fantasy that makes us forget that most sport is dominated by public schools and the government keeps on selling off playing fields.
Let’s start with the first, most obvious fallacy. ‘We’ didn’t win the medals – the athletes did. Saying that ‘we’ won the cycling, the sailing, the pentathlon and so on is simply riding on someone else’s coattails. You didn’t train for years, you didn’t compete. You just sat on your rear end and watched. You added nothing by standing up with the hundreds of other Union Jack-clad people in the venue and shouting in unison. It’s nothing to do with you.
The second fallacy is the claim that the Olympics have drawn the nation together. Not everyone is behind ‘Team GB’. Large numbers of people either took the fortnight off or flew abroad. 20 million might have tuned in to watch the Athletics, but the other 40 million had better things to do.
And does this celebration of success mean the nation has been brought together? Well, no – not if you can be forced into providing unpaid labour for Poundland or, as happened to me, you apply for a discount buspass because you’re unemployed and the man at the tube station won’t even look you in the face while you fill the form in. Public spectacle won’t do away with how utterly divided we are.
Has it made us nicer people? Lots of anecdotal reports claim that we’re helping each other more on the Tube, rather than mugging everyone at knife point like we presumably used to do. But I’m more reminded of the mother who ordered her daughter to keep up with her in case they missed the torch procession, even though the little girl had just badly twisted her ankle. She was crying, but the mother was in a hurry.
The point to remember is that ‘We’ could have won gold anywhere in the world. And if we had done badly in London, would that really have mattered? Gold won in London is the same as Gold won in Beijing, or Rio De Janeiro. It’s someone’s glory, but not everyone’s.
Indeed, what ruins the genuine fun of the Olympics is how it is being used to distract us from the parlous state of the UK, as an un-elected Old Etonian PM tries to claim the credit, and an equally un-elected Royal Family basks in stage managed adulation. The real story is the brutal fight for supremacy between China and America’s athletes at the top of the medal table, dwarfing the UK’s own relatively meagre total of 65.
And the stark truth is that once the Five Ring Circus leaves, Stratford will be stripped of its Olympic flourishes and left behind to slowly rot once more, loomed over by a cold, distant Canary Wharf and scarred by poverty and social strife in equal measure.
It will still be the UK, and there’s the problem.
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