The Olympics are irrelevant. That’s why they’re so great

All the Olym-politicking over ‘legacy’ risks marring our memories of the glorious Games.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics World

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The 16 days of the London 2012 Olympics, and particularly the 10 days of outstanding athletics on the track and field, were an exhilarating, inspiring spectacle, the sporting highlights of which will live long in the imagination. Agreed? Now, can we leave it at that?

Instead, an army of pundits and politicians seem determined to mar our memories by degrading the Games with their Olym-politics, droning on about the cultural, social and economic ‘meaning’ and ‘legacy’ of London 2012. They are trying to turn Olympic athletes and events into tools to pursue their own pet agendas, from saving little children from obesity to signing us all up to their Big Society. If this carries on, they may well achieve the seemingly impossible (and not in a good, Mo Farah way) by making some of us sick of hearing about those glorious Games.

The trouble is that the rich meat of the brief sporting action has been sandwiched on either side by the thick, tasteless bread of our stodgy culture. Once the bid to stage the Games in London was won in 2005, we had to endure seven years of various shades of Olympic bull, from the initial hoopla about supposedly regenerating east London into Shangri-La, to the more recent pre-Games hysteria about how the Olympics were allegedly going to hell in a handcart and taking the rest of us with them.

Then, after seven years of chewing our way through all that stuff and nonsense, we were able to enjoy a couple of weeks of beautifully presented sporting excellence, as the world’s finest athletes stirred hearts and minds across Britain and around the world.

Now that the meat of the sport has gone, it seems we are stuck with having to digest the other unpalatable side of the Olympic sandwich: the post-Games stodge about how the ‘spirit’ of London 2012 can be exploited to solve all of our society’s problems. This stuff actually started to congeal around the Games even before the Games proper had begun, with the discussion about how the opening ceremony had helped to forge a new national identity and sense of togetherness, apparently based on a fairytale version of the NHS and an endless chorus of ‘Hey, Jude’.

It has really started to smother the sport since the competition ended, however, with everybody seemingly trying to cash in with their own brand of Olym-politics. So Tories such as Baron Sebastian Coe, prime minster David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson have been telling us in different ways that Team GB’s success in the Olympics shows Britain can win through united in the face of economic and social adversity, while Labour politicians led by Ed Miliband echo the message that the Games have shown how we can ‘bring the country together’ once more. Meanwhile, the governor of the Bank of England claims that the sporting Olympians have shown bankers how to behave and prosper according to fair play, while the Premier League suggests they have given the same example of how to win gracefully to uncouth footballers. And everybody appears to agree that the Games have ‘inspired a generation’ to get fit, fight obesity, abandon computer games and give up rioting.

The way that these champions of Olym-politics have confused sport and society was well captured on Twitter by Jon Snow, Channel 4 news anchor and voice of the liberal media class, at the moment Farah won his second gold medal of the Games, in the men’s 5,000 metres, on Saturday night. Farah’s remarkable triumph was a vindication of his years of hard work and his decision to move to America to benefit from more advanced and intensive training techniques. In the newsreader’s eyes, however, the victory of a man who came to Britain as a child refugee from Somalia was apparently a triumph of multiculturalism and a vindication of Snow’s entire worldview. ‘It just cannot get better than this!’ he tweeted excitedly: ‘This is us, our time, our country, our Mo Farah: Crowd of our time; tears of our time: Hope for all time.’ It would not have been a surprise after that if Snow had told us that he had a dream that one day the children of slaves and the children of slave-owners would run around a track in Stratford together.

All of this almost entirely misses the point about why London 2012 was so good for us all. The Olympics is great because it is, in a real sense, irrelevant to our everyday lives. Those days of awe-inspiring sport have no immediate relevance to the economics, politics or culture of the country in which they happen to be staged. They are taking place on a higher plane of human struggle and achievement.

The Games have been great because they have taken millions of us out of ourselves, momentarily transported us from our humdrum concerns, and shown us a glimpse of another world in which extraordinary things are possible. Watching Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprint relay team burn up the track on Saturday was uplifting to the likes of me in the way that Shakespeare can be; other Olympic moments such as the victory of ‘Our Mo’ in the men’s distance races, or of Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba in the women’s 10,000 metres, also filled me with joy. They had no more relevance to the rest of my life than the beauty of a Beethoven symphony. But that was precisely what made them feel extraordinary. Now the competing voices of Olym-politics want to render them banal.

Of course, as previously discussed on spiked, the Olympics are always influenced by the wider political and cultural context in which they take place. Serious sport remains, as George Orwell suggested, war without the shooting (except in the shooting events). That, however, is very different from suggesting that the roles can be reversed, so that Olympic sport can somehow be used as an instrument to reshape a nation’s identity or its economy.

By the same token, the enthusiasm of the volunteers and the crowds who flocked to the London Olympics did indeed reveal, not just a love of sport (many of them were not the normal sports fans), but a keenness to be part of something bigger than themselves, an elusive shared national experience of some sort. That is very different from suggesting that sport could somehow be used in the longer term to bring everybody together as a meaningful substitute for politics or a national consensus.

No doubt the sporting feats of the past couple of weeks will inspire more young (and some not-so-young) people to take sport seriously, just as the Olympians of today were inspired by past champions. (Though even that is not necessarily as straightforward as often portrayed; one GB boxing silver medallist said his inspiration had been the movie 300.) That will be about our top sportsmen and women being heroes, not ‘role models’ – and has nothing to do with reducing the entire Games to a ‘role model’ for the Big Society.

‘All art is useless’, observed Oscar Wilde, while celebrating its beauty. Sport is not really an art. But in a similar sense, the beauty of the Olympics is practically ‘useless’ and irrelevant to everyday life. That is what made it worth enduring all the guff in order to enjoy the Games of London 2012. Now if only they would leave us alone to enjoy the stirring memories.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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