Olympics

Well, at least the whingeing finally stopped…

You may have begun to wonder if I’d given up blogging altogether. The truth is not quite, or at least not yet, although you won’t need me to tell you I seem to have been winding down – there’s been some mildly unpleasant stuff happening in real life that’s occupied my mind. Anyway here – and just as you thought you’d escaped my inanity for good – are some irrelevant and uninteresting comments on something that happened so long ago everyone’s already had their say and moved on. Yes, that’s right, it’s just like old times! Except this post has subheadings, in a desperate attempt to fool you into thinking it’s less rambling and incoherent than it actually is.

Inclusive nationalism

My Olympic experience began with the torch relay. It travelled down the main road that’s about five minutes walk from my front door, so I naturally went out to have a look. I instantly decided that this was much more my kind of thing than the jubilee celebrations that were then quite recent – lots of people coming out of their offices, people from shops craning round doorways to catch a glimpse, and a forest of camera phones grabbing invaluable footage of the back of someone’s head. Some people cheered the flame (I just sort of looked and vaguely smiled), but the whole thing was friendly and reasonably spontaneous – no-one told people to come out; the torch’s route was announced in advance, but people could come and look at it, or not, as they chose. It didn’t feel imposed from above like the jubilee events did, and it was at least a national celebration that felt like it was about the country I actually live in, not the weird fantasy land of royal pageants. If we must have nationalism and flag-waving, how much better it should be an inclusive nationalism that can recognise a Muslim immigrant like Mo Farah for the national hero he undoubtedly is, and not the militaristic, “God loves us best” posturing of the jubilee.

A corporate boondoggle?

One of the Olympic whinges that never quite died down was the heavy-handed corporate sponsorship, and there was evidence of that on the torch relay. When the torch passed through my neighbourhood it was rather dwarfed by vehicles covered in corporate logos, which was a bit of a shame. That said, it struck me that, when it came to the games themselves, things could have been a lot worse. It’s noticeable, for example, that pretty much the only logos on display actually inside the sporting venues themselves were the Olympic rings and the official London 2012 sigil. Compared to a standard football match, with it’s electronic billboards all around the stadium, there was actually a whole lot less corporate branding, and even the athletes’ official uniforms had only quite discreet logos on them. I’m not going to argue that the games were refreshingly free of corporate influence or anything daft like that – I saw enough adverts telling me that there was an official dishwasher tablet of the Olympics to know that’s not true – but given how thoroughly mixed up with corporate sponsorship sport is, it could have been a lot worse. Think how much Coca Cola would have paid for a billboard next to the finishing line of the 100 metres.

Opening and closing

I think it must have been the most geek-positive opening ceremony to a sporting event there’s ever been. Obviously, there was the high focus on Tim Berners-Lee, but also the attention paid to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I saw a photo gallery of the ceremony on an American website, possibly that of the New York Times, where IKB was described in a caption as Britain’s favourite engineer. I was rather proud – that he is our favourite engineer, but mainly that we pay enough attention to our engineering heritage that it’s not completely preposterous to say that we actually have a favourite engineer (even if it does seem likely that if you took a photo of him out on the street and asked people who he was you’d get a lot of blank looks). If they were going down the route of honouring engineers, I thought it was a slight shame that there didn’t appear to be any attention paid to Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine. That would have been quite a message to give to ourselves and the rest of the world: without us, no worldwide web and no rapid air travel.*

The closing ceremony doesn’t seem to have been as popular as the opening ceremony – perhaps because it was basically just a concert, and people feel on much more secure grounds saying a concert was rubbish because it featured an artist they didn’t like, or didn’t feature one they love. I don’t tweet, so I missed a lot of the fevered speculation about artists expected to perform, which seems to have contributed to the feeling of anticlimax for some. If I had been aware of it, I would have pointed out that David Bowie has pretty much retired from public life on health grounds and was thus very unlikely to appear. And there was absolutely no chance of Kate Bush – studio-bound musical recluses do not live global television appearances make.

Of those people who did appear I was, of course, thrilled by the Pet Shop Boys, and thought they did not bad, given that it really wasn’t their kind of gig, and they’d been asked to play an inappropriately sombre song. The reviews/ comments I’ve seen online that have mentioned PSB at all seem to have rewarded them with warm but not effusive praise, so that’s ok – obviously it would have been nice if they’d been praised to the skies, but that was never likely, and the real danger was that they would have been perceived as utterly clapped out and passed it like…many of the other performers.

I was amused to note that the person who did by far the best job of engaging the audience and getting them to respond was Freddie Mercury, even though he’s been dead for 20 years. And I was quietly pleased to see the remnants of Queen demonstrate rather pointedly that – even in their 60s, and even with a stand-in singer unfamiliar with performing this kind of music – they can still do bombastic stadium rock rather better than the not-so-young pretenders, Muse. Although, that said, if the organisers were going to go to all the trouble of disturbing noted astronomer Dr Brian May’s Perseid observations it seems odd not to have got him to play ‘We are the Champions’, which seems all but tailor-made for the climax to an Olympic closing ceremony. Overall, I thought it was rather a shame that the organisers allowed some of the ‘live’ singers to mime. It’s really unfair that someone like Emeli Sande who sang live – with all the slight breath-control and tuning issues that are inevitable when someone sings live in front of hundreds of millions of people – can end up sounding less competent than manufactured pop acts who can barely sing a note in the privacy of a studio. In fact, it’s not entirely dissimilar to the doping issue in sport – all the there-in-person vocalists should have been on a level playing field, just like all the athletes should be.

Aethelread as armchair sports fan

In terms of the sport, I found myself, like quite a lot of people, unexpectedly taken with the equestrian events – the show jumping, dressage, and so on. Although the dressage event where the horses were made to dance to music was just weird. I also watched quite a lot of the cycling and a fair amount of the rowing. I saw a small amount of beach volleyball, and realised I’d been doing an injustice to fans of the sport in assuming that it was little more than a kind of softcore-with-swimsuits for people who are too timid or too married to watch proper porn. In fact, it seemed to be quite an exciting sport, especially to someone like me who likes tennis – although, in the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I always found something else to watch when it was women competing, and only lingered when there were men involved, so perhaps the softcore-with-swimsuits tag isn’t completely wide of the mark.

I didn’t watch much in the way of gymnastics or athletics, I’m afraid. I can easily appreciate the extraordinary physical prowess required of the gymnasts and athletes, and the hours of practice they must put in, but the events themselves leave me rather cold. I did see a bit of the rhythmic gymnastics, and that event struck me as a slightly unfortunate hang over from the days when female Olympians had to do ‘feminine’ or ‘graceful’ pursuits because other sporting events were deemed too ‘aggressive’ or ‘masculine’ for them. It seemed, therefore, an odd inclusion in an Olympics that included women’s boxing for the first time. It’s certainly interesting that rhythmic gymnastics is so far as I know one of only two Olympic disciplines where the gradual process of introducing gender equality to the Games will require a women-only competition being opened up to men instead of vice versa. (The only other such event, I believe, is synchronised swimming.)

Class athletes

Speaking of boxing, and at a purely anecdotal level (i.e. I didn’t sit down and watch every interview with a British athlete, taking notes as I did so), it struck me that the interviews with boxers – and the participants in the fighting disciplines more generally – were amongst the few times we got to hear obviously working class accents. This seems to tie in with a mini-controversy that was … I was going to say raging, but that’s putting it way too dramatically… fitfully sputtering in some sections of the media in the earlier stages of the Games, and was focussed on statistics showing that a disproportionate number of Britain’s medal winners had attended private schools. Personally, I was slightly taken back that this came as a surprise to anyone.

I mean, for a start, let’s look at the fact that one of the leading private schools in England, Eton, has a rowing facility so state-of-the-art that, with the addition of temporary grandstands, it was capable of hosting an Olympic rowing regatta with no adaptations required. I don’t know whether any of Britain’s rowers this time around went to Eton, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that, if you happen to have an interest in and aptitude for competitive rowing, attending a school that has Olympic-standard facilities on hand will give you a bit of a helping hand in developing your potential. Then there’s the fact that, because they have more money to spend, private schools are able to offer a wider range of sports – and specialist coaching in those sports – to their pupils, which again increases the likelihood that someone may discover and develop an aptitude for one of them.

When I was a kid I went to my local comprehensive and, despite the dire reputation this form of education has, it was a really good school, both academically and in sporting terms. The PE teachers did a great job introducing the kids to a range of sports – I did football, rugby, cricket, hockey, basketball, volleyball, long jump, high jump, discus, javelin, pole vault, and long and short distance running – but their hands were somewhat tied by the equipment they had available. We didn’t do any swimming because the school didn’t have a pool, and the nearest public pool would have been more than half an hour away by bus; we didn’t do fencing, shooting or archery because we didn’t have the equipment (plus, I suspect, the school was keen to avoid a bloodbath); we didn’t do any of the martial arts because none of the teachers had the training; we didn’t do rowing or canoeing or kayaking or sailing because the only water in the vicinity was a tiny stream where the water didn’t come up to my ankles, even when I was 11. Of course, there was nothing to stop a kid from my school watching the boat race on Grandstand and announcing to their parents that they wanted to try that, but I’ll lay good odds that a significant number of the competitors in the Olympics realised they had an aptitude for their chosen sport when they first tried it, not when they first saw it on TV.

Then, of course, there’s the question of how parents are able to respond if their child shows an interest in pursuing a particular sport – or trying a whole range until they find one that fits (quite a number of Team GB seem to have described trying several until they found the one in which they had Olympic potential). It’s the kind of thing that’s so obvious it shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does – people who send their kids to private school tend to be reasonably well off. That’s not to sat they’re all mega-rich, but they tend to be the kind of people who can, perhaps with some careful budgeting, find the money to pay for subs to sports clubs, or training sessions at the local pool, or horse-riding lessons, not to mention fees to enter the competitions where their kids may come to the attention of talent scouts and coaches. It shouldn’t really surprise us that a kid who has these kind of opportunities available to them finds it easier to develop their natural talent, and it shouldn’t amaze us, either, that kids who have more opportunities to develop their natural talent are more likely to become elite athletes later in life.

I’ve also been struck by the fact that many of the competitors have been supported by enthusiastic and dedicated parents. I lost count of the number of times I saw a weepy person in a Team GB uniform pay tribute to their parent/ parents, and note that without all the practical and emotional support they would never have made it. That, clearly, is just good parenting, something that no social class has a monopoly on. But again, it shouldn’t really come as a huge surprise that it’s rather easier to accompany your child to a weekend competition or an evening training session if you work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday in a middle management position, and not 4 to midnight on a rotating 5 days out of 7 shift pattern in a warehouse. It’s also easier to provide your child with intensive encouragement if you’re not exhausted from working two jobs just to pay the electricity bill. That’s not to say, of course, that working class parents don’t do those things for their kids – very many do, and do it brilliantly – but it shouldn’t amaze us that the kids of parents who find it easier in practical terms to do those things rise to the top more readily than the kids of parents who find it more difficult.

All it takes is dedication and hard work?

This relates to something else I noticed a few of the British athletes saying: namely, that their success demonstrates that all a person needs is dedication and hard work and they can achieve their goals. I don’t want in any way to undermine the amount of hard work and dedication that all of the members of Team GB have shown – obviously those qualities were absolutely critical to their success, and without a huge personal effort none of them would have got where they did. But that’s not the same thing as saying that hard work and dedication are all a person need. As I’ve been suggesting in the past few paragraphs, a person needs opportunity as well, but they also need talent. It’s simply not the case that anyone, given opportunity and hard work and dedication, can do what Nicola Adams did, or Chris Hoy, or any of the rest. In fact, that’s a large part of why we find their achievements so impressive. We may be inspired by their hard work, we may take a kind of collective pride in the fact that we’ve put in place structures and systems that give people the opportunity to reap the rewards that their dedication entitles them to – but we’re impressed because what they do is something that most of us can’t. We’re impressed by Usain Bolt – the ‘fastest man on earth’, as he is so often described – because he is certainly exceptional, and perhaps even unique.

All of this is, I suspect, obvious to most of us (although possibly not to the athletes themselves; they have talent, so from their perspective it may genuinely seem like hard work and opportunity are all that’s necessary – they truly may not recognise their own exceptionalness). I dare say most people automatically translate ‘anyone can achieve anything if they work hard enough’ to ‘everyone can make the most of themselves with hard work’. Certainly, I’d endorse that interpretation, and it strikes me it’s key to this ‘legacy’ for mass participation in sport and exercise that everyone’s so worried about – not everyone can beat all the other swimmers in the pool, but everyone can work on beating themselves, on swimming faster this time than they did last time.

It’s a mistake to argue, as in the aftermath of the Olympics some right-wing politicians and pundits have, that competitive sport is a simple panacea for correcting every perceived social ill. Competition by its very nature creates losers and winners, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a fact of life that some people are better than others, and the goal of beating everyone else provides a great incentive and motivation for the people who have a chance of winning. But if we don’t also find a way of motivating and encouraging the people who will never win, no matter how hard they try, then the great majority of people will be turned off by sport. If the Olympic legacy of inspiring a generation is to be fulfilled then we have to make sure the message that people take away is that self-improvement is possible for all of us, not that there are winners and losers, and that losers, having lost, are worthless.

* – Ok, so actually it’s almost certainly true that something very like the worldwide web would have been created by someone else if Berners-Lee hadn’t got there first. And the jet engine was developed independently by both the British and the Germans during the 2nd World War, so there’s no question we’d be flying around in fast aeroplanes even if Whittle had never been born. Arguing that two specific individuals were required for broad technological improvements to occur is bad history, but in the reductive way these stories get told the web and jet engines are British, in the same way that powered flight belongs to the USA and democracy to Greece.

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