In so far as these things can be measured, London 2012 was undoubtedly a huge success. We could be picky and point to ticketing problems during the first week and we should not forget the tragic death of a cyclist caused by a collision with a bus serving the Olympic Park on the very day Bradley Wiggins won his hugely impressive time trial gold medal. But, all in all, we enjoyed a great festival of sporting endeavour.
Never Mind the Ball, Get on with the (predictable) Game
There were many magnificent performances, not least from Scottish participants, to celebrate. It does a disservice to these dedicated and inspirational athletes that so many looked past these in an attempt to push a puerile political agenda.
Even before the opening ceremony, we had two classic examples courtesy of Jim Murphy and Jackson Carlaw. Once again, Mr Murphy demonstrated precisely where his loyalties lie by publicly castigating Hampden for displaying the South Korean flag next to the images of North Korean footballers. Never mind that Hampden was only doing what they were instructed to by the London organising committee. As far as Jim is concerned we should just do what London says and if it turns out that London was wrong, well that’s our fault for doing what we were told. Being London’s man in Scotland is clearly a tough gig to give up.
The following morning, Jackson Carlaw tried to politicise the Games on BBC Radio Scotland by criticising Alex Salmond for giving special encouragement to Scottish Olympians before wishing participants of all countries good luck. Apparently, the First Minister should have also made special mention of the rest of ‘Team GB’. Whatever you think of the term ‘Scolympian’, this attitude sums up perfectly why the Scottish Tories continue to plumb the depths of political support in Scotland. Note to Mr Carlaw; it is the Scottish First Minister’s job to promote the Scottish interest – once you understand that point, you might be able to start dreaming about being given the privilege to speak for Scotland.
And the Winner is… London of course
In any event, Scottish Olympians have had their most successful Games ever. Congratulations are due to all medal winners but also to all those who competed without tangible reward. Collectively, Britain has also had its most successful Games in modern times. But that is not enough for the London media and its politicians, so the agenda has moved on to positioning London 2012 as ‘the best ever’ Games.
Interviews with IOC officials in which loaded questions are answered with favourable responses are cited as ‘evidence’ in support of this nonsense. Apparently Lord Coe and Boris Johnston agree. That’s that then. All those with a vested interest in the Games being portrayed as ‘the best ever’ say the Games are ‘the best ever’ or at least have not said the Games weren’t ‘the best ever’.
Such an assessment cannot be objectively measured, so why bother trying? Well, you may have noticed the UK’s diminishing influence in the world lately. The worry for our London leaders is that they have noticed that you, me and many others have indeed noticed. What better way to bolster a flagging global reputation than staging ‘the best ever’ Olympics? Ultimately, those involved in this act of delusion – the Games organisers, the media and London politicians – will only succeed in reinforcing each other’s misplaced sense of achievement and importance.
It would be churlish to deny that London has put on a cracking good show. Almost as churlish as pretending that it has been the best show ever or that even if it was, it is in any way important.
Celebrity and Credibility
One of the unofficial events at any Games is the ‘Worst use of cliché/hyperbole/platitude by a non-competitor’. With so much coverage it is a hotly contested event. The need to fill hours of TV and Radio scheduling requires the use of a multiplicity of contributors and pundits. I have to say that in all the BBC coverage I have enjoyed over the last fortnight I have found most of the presenters and major commentators very skilled and well informed. Their professionalism has been enhanced by some excellent and insightful pundits like Michael Johnston, Steve Redgrave and Ian Thorpe.
Inevitably, though, the apparent need to involve celebrities results in less than meaningful contributions. I cannot be the only person who winced with embarrassment every time David Beckham or Amir Khan tried to answer the simplest of questions with a barrage of unrelated mix and match platitudes masquerading as considered contribution.
Some of this is forgivable of course. These are not necessarily media trained performers or communications professionals and, as one infamous Renfrewshire councillor once put it, “A leopard can’t change its spots in midstream”. Therefore my Gold Medal for the Worst use of cliché/ hyperbole/platitude by a non-competitor goes to none other than Lord Coe himself for his description of David Rudisha’s world record in the 800 metres as ‘the best 800 metres ever’. What would we do without such insight?
Don’t Medal with Sporting Achievement
Much play is made of the ‘Medals Table’ by the media. In many ways this is a pity because it is certainly not reflective of the true Olympic spirit. Indeed the concept is an American invention which has been used over the years to demonstrate – mostly to themselves – the supremacy of the US over all others. While it is useful to measure relative success from one Games to the next by the number of medals won, it is completely meaningless to compare one nation to another which may participate in only a handful of the sports included or which has vastly different populations to choose participants from and resources to support them.
As the US has demonstrated though, it is a very useful tool to generate an illusion of ‘one nation’ and the British Olympic Association has eagerly followed its example by its adoption of the equivalent term to ‘Team USA’ (without any apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the omission of ‘NI’ of course).
In my mind, the US and UK stand accused of diminishing the world solidarity the Games is meant to encourage by trying to turn the Olympics into a country versus country affair. This is naturally the case in team sports of course but in individual sports the Olympics is about competing with the best athletes the rest of the planet has to offer. Of course it is an honour to be selected by your country to compete and there are well established national rivalries that provide an intriguing undercurrent in many cases but surely reducing a great athletics or swimming race to a sub-plot of an over-arching national contest is to miss the point?
This approach has its consequences. It puts nationality above performance. In the US this has meant that TV coverage of the Olympics is almost exclusively about Gymnastics, Swimming, Track & Field, Boxing and Basketball – sports where the US is not competitive do not get a look in. Similar patterns can be seen emerging in the UK with the risk that the popular sports get more popular and the others become even less popular over time.
We also heard time and again how ‘Team GB’ athletes were primarily inspired by the success of their ‘team-mates’ in other disciplines. I find it rather sad that elite athletes are not inspired to do their best by their very presence at the Olympics or by the efforts of their immediate competitors or by excellence whoever it is performed by. Look at it a different way; wouldn’t it be sad for Mo Farah or Chris Hoy or Nicola Adams to think that their efforts hadn’t inspired anyone outside of the UK?
The lesson of all this? Sport is diminished whenever it is used for any purpose other than the joy of participating and competing. Politicians need to support sport through funding facilities and encouraging engagement. There is no place for using sport as a political football – its very nature transcends the boundaries of politics and nations – and any attempt to do so is left looking like opportunism of Olympic proportions.