First published in Shifiting Grounds: 13th August 2012
By all reasonable estimations, the 2012 London Olympics has become an overwhelming success for Britain. Confounding all expectations, we have seized the Games as an rare opportunity to express our humanity, compassion, and good-will. These are traits commonly held, but seldom expressed – locked behind a notoriously stiff upper lip, yet the sacrifice of the athletes, driven by a yearning to achieve their best, has profoundly moved us. Their efforts have been matched by a profound emotional investment by the public, whose cynicism has turned to celebration.
This investment is quantified in the results of a recent Freeview survey of 2,000 adults, which found that a majority of adults felt a sense of national pride at British Olympic success; that two out of five had cried watching the Games; that 85% had overcome their cynicism and now felt genuine pride, and that seven out of ten now saw British athletes as role models. This indicates a positive shift in attitudes: the British public have come to realise that the pursuit of excellence through hard work can earn you the respect and adoration of your peers.
The opening ceremony, watched by 27 million people, was a triumph precisely because it successfully reflected the aims of the Olympic movement – to bring humanity closer together through sport. Individual aspects of the ceremony touched us in different ways. The ‘industrial’ segment recalled our ingenuity and endeavour; the celebration of the NHS reflected the egalitarian ideals that had spurred its very creation. The absence of ‘Empire’ themes provided an ideal opportunity for us to draw a line under that aspect of our history. The world moves on, and although wounds heal slowly, it is right that we finally be allowed to seek a new identity. Danny Boyle achieved additional plaudits, because he accurately portrayed who we are.
For all the talk of legacy – of immediate economic and social benefits that may or not may come to pass, it is this nascent identity which is perhaps most significant. The successes of Mo Farah only serve to underline Britain’s credentials as a society that celebrates difference. If his efforts can inspire minorities to participate in society to a greater degree, then we can be proud to call ourselves a multicultural society. We now know more than ever is that to be British is not to succumb to nationalistic fervour, but simply to empathise with and tolerate others, regardless of their background or circumstance.
With this in mind, what should the future of Britain be? The Games demonstrated that Britain can achieve on the world stage. The foreign, and domestic voices, who called into doubt our ability to make the games a success were proved wrong. They should continue to be proved wrong in the future. If the much hyped Olympic boom fails to materialise, we cannot for a minute allow ourselves to state that the games were a failure. Was our Olympic success not a demonstration of our competence and determination to overcome adversity? These are the lessons we can draw.
The overwhelming success of the Games however, will place pressure on the Coalition to treat the Olympic legacy seriously. Questions surrounding policy on school sports provision have already emerged, with prominent athletes arguing that government decisions to cut provision targets are wrong. The public know that times are hard, but they also know that they cannot be allowed to be hard forever. If the Government cannot recognise the fact that it holds the power to improve peoples lives, then the Opposition must demonstrate to the country how it can act a springboard to greater national health and happiness.
The Olympic Legacy need not be restricted to sport, for it can also help transform our economic fortunes. The message should be: together we can achieve great things, we can be a healthy and productive nation, and we can overcome the problems we face and enjoy more prosperous times. The only thing we have to do, is be positive and to try our best. The Olympics prove that we have the ability, and the temperament, to succeed. To quote former Labour leader Michael Foot:
‘I say to our country, our great country, don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of those who tell us that we cannot run our affairs, that we have not the ingenuity to mobilise our resources and overcome our economic problems. Of course we have, we can do that and save the freedom of our country at the same time!’