The Olympic Games can have a bad reputation. They are often defended as nationally unifying by deeply suspect people whose idea of what unifies is equally suspect. But it is also the case that many who apparently held a dim view of the Games turn out to have been pretty avid watchers. As Mass-Observation noted of George VI’s coronation, even those most determined to ignore it found themselves sucked in.
Sport at such a level heightens experience and emotion more than almost any other human activity. When people speak of ‘sport as a religion’ they acknowledge that. The frequent recourse to tears by winners and losers – not to speak of their parents – is an inevitable consequence. Félix Sánchez of the Dominican Republic, who simply could not stop crying after winning the 400m hurdles, was only an extreme example. It must be amazing to win an Olympic gold medal in front of millions. But not to win one when you are expected to clearly can be devastating: There were several silver medallists who felt they had let everyone down and were almost inconsolable. Even the queen’s granddaughter felt she had let the side down. It is to Tom Daley’s credit that, expected to ‘deliver’ more than most, he was obviously very happy with his bronze.
The sense of second-place failure is partly a result of the fact that very successful sportsmen and women – the gold medallists – now achieve a status and evoke feelings few others do. The thousands of hands reaching out to touch the sporting heroes suggest emotions that elsewhere – at a Nuremberg rally, say – we would find troubling. (It also involves the ambivalences of modern sport. In the athletic stadium most of the hands reaching out were white. Most of those they wished to touch were black.) The emotions need not, of course, involve ambivalence. One of the most memorable incidents of the Games was when Henry Caplan, an 11-year-old boy, quite spontaneously and charmingly rushed down to hug the not tremendously huggable Andy Murray at the end of the men’s singles tennis final.
Team GB comes out of all this very well, and not simply because they won lots of medals. There has been much about the disproportionately private-school provenance of many of the athletes. It is, in fact, surprising that there were not more. Many Olympic sports, especially those where you ride in or on things – boats and horses – do not come cheap. What was striking was the relative everydayness of the team. They wanted to win, worked hard at it and, when they won, did so with grace and understandable excitement. The team was, as one would expect, ethnically diverse. More than one-third of medal winners had recent non-British origins: a significantly higher proportion than the population as a whole. That figure will almost certainly increase. The team represents, as one of my colleagues put it, real reality TV.
Comparisons have been made between Team GB’s behaviour and success, on the one hand, and England’s overpaid and undertalented footballers on the other. We should not forget, however, that the best of the athletes (except in boxing) are very well paid professionals. The best can expect, through appearance money or sponsorships, to do very nicely. And they employ people to ensure that they do (Usain Bolt and Mo Farah share an agent). They are surrounded by coaches, mentors, masseurs, team managers and the newest technology. They could well go the way of footballers. But, somehow, running, jumping, cycling, swimming and gymnastics have avoided the routinisation and sense of grievance that marks English football. Hence the enthusiasm and delight with which they were greeted by the spectators.
Which brings us to the money. The British state, via direct Treasury funding and the National Lottery, has in the last decade or so spent a lot of money on Britain’s athletes. The number of medals won has risen accordingly. The various sporting organisations have on the whole spent the money well, but it is the state that has rescued British sport from the blight of voluntarism. This has obvious implications for ministers who do not want to spend money, who have ravaged sport in schools and who dislike the state, but who also want to associate themselves with sporting success.
Cameron’s interventions have been entirely predictable: to blame teachers in state schools who don’t like competitive sports and want everyone to have prizes. The issue isn’t really money, it’s ‘culture’. This remark is not only characteristically shallow; it is despicable. What does Mo Farah’s PE teacher think of it, the one who first saw and nourished his talent? What do teachers who have seen their schools’ playing fields sold off, or full-time PE teachers who have been made redundant, think of it? How is the success of the majority of the team who went to state schools to be explained? It is also absurd. The government now says that it will make competitive sport in some way compulsory in state schools. But it will not be compulsory in academies. And Cameron and Gove want all schools to be academies. British sport needs to be rescued not just from voluntarism but from the present government.