The Olympic Games will be upon us soon, and I don’t know how I feel about them. It’s not the stories of political corruption, or of state-sponsored drug-taking, or even the mounting absurdities of the Games themselves, but simply that I haven’t got over the last Olympic Games as yet. London 2012 was perfect. What further point could a Rio Games serve?
It was a time when time stopped still, and nothing but happiness ensued. The reasons for this seem absurd enough: a concentration of sports competitions, most of them the kind of sports few of us would follow in the normal course of events; an absence of calamity; some good weather. Of course there was national fervour too, but of the kind that seemed welcome. You cheered on your side, but you cheered on everyone else’s side as well. Nations were not fighting, they were running side-by-side down lanes. The euphoria was not just at the sporting venues, but on the television, yet also away from both. Wherever you went, tension had gone. Everything was excitable, and yet in balance. It seemed to be what the Olympics were for.
I’m reading a history of the Olympics at the moment, David Goldblatt’s The Games. It sets out the familiar story of how the Olympic Games were created out of a mixture of nationalism and rising interest in competitive sport, mixed with classicism and a belief that the best that humanity could offer would be exemplified by the gentleman amateur. The book explores the paradoxes and hypocrisies that underpin the Olympic myth, but the lesson I’m drawing from it is that the Olympic Games have never meant anything. They have never been a mechanism for peace, or understanding, but only an absolute reflection of the times and the societies in which they were held. The Games promoted peace, and the same forces that created them also gave us the First World War. They have been used as tools of political propaganda, most grossly so in 1936, 1980 and 1984. They have encouraged cheating, deception, lies and national bias. They have always been as much the poison as the cure.
The Olympics are a kind of religion. Reading Goldblatt’s book made me think of the sociologist Norbert Elias’s comments on religion (which I’ve cited here before), in his book The Civilizing Process:
Religion, the belief in the punishing or rewarding omnipotence of God, never has in itself a “civilizing” or affect-subduing effect. On the contrary, religion is exactly as “civilized” as the society or class which upholds it.
The Olympics have likewise never had the affect-subduing effect that Pierre de Coubertin and his fellow gentleman idealists supposed they must have. They simply reflected the society and the class that upheld them, changing as those classes and societies changed.
This is what was so uplifting about London 2012 – it showed how good we have become. The Olympic Games did not make us that way: it merely provided the opportunity to show how we really are. It’s not just what was exemplified by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s extraordinary opening ceremony, though its theme was the building of Jerusalem and our better selves. It was a marvellous creation, but it was also propaganda. The goodness came out the Games themselves. It showed that society could be in the competition, yet out of it at the same time. It showed respect for others, a deep understanding of cultural difference combined with common values. It showed that we have come far and have learned something. It made the planet look good.
Yet there were other things going on at London 2012. There was all of the expected flag-waving at the Games, all of it good-humoured and mixed with respect for other people’s flags and passions. But there was something more to the waving of all those Union Jacks. I sensed everywhere a feeling people had of release; of being allowed to cheer for things British, with a complementary feeling that they had been prevented from doing so beforehand. The reasons for this were muddled, but came out of a mixture of confusion over the Union (am I English? what is British?), disengagement with the European Union, with a sense that other peoples were more trouble-free when it came to expressing national enthusiasm. London 2012 gave expression to a perceived need for identity.
The fruits of this are there to be seen in the EU referendum result, when the UK voted to leave the European Union. There were other forces that drove this decision, of course (economic, generational, racial), but some of it lay in that need to be able to cheer like others seemed to be able to cheer which was evident across the summer of 2012. So when some feel oppressed by the backward step, laced with bigotry, that Brexit seems to imply, it’s worth remembering the goodness overall that the Olympic (and Paralympic) Games of 2012 reflected. They showed us to be civilised.
I visited the Olympic Park this weekend. The Anniversary Games were taking place, with cheers erupting from the stadium which triggered much nostalgic feeling, though from the new signage being erected its transference to a West Ham United football stadium is well underway. Beyond, there there were inviting wide spaces, gardens, flower beds, play areas, sports arenas, a funfair, and people drifted by on swan-shaped paddle-boats.
The Park remains a work-in-progress, working to a grand plan to convert the space into a new kind of environment combining public leisure space with sporting facilities, businesses and cultural institutions (promised as the next step in some glossy posters – the culture and education district to be named Olympicopolis). An area of east London that had been grievously neglected is being revitalised, as a legacy of the Games and in the spirit of those Games. It’s happy place in which to be, attracting a diverse, multicultural, family-oriented, primarily local public, basking in the location as they were basking in the sun, drawn by the several attractions on offer but chiefly by having a space of their own. It feels like a rightful inheritance: not just the location, but the people. It felt like somewhere for everyone.
As you walk away from the stadium and towards the Park, you come across the bell that Bradley Wiggins rang at the start of the London 2012 opening ceremony. It hangs from a stand, demanding that you look up. In doing so, you see the words inscribed on it from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest that were central to the ceremony’s ‘Isles of Wonder’ theme:
Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises
It was good to see it, in such a place, and at such a time; to see things beyond the noises to the heart beneath.