Who do we think we are?

Glen Newey

Week two of the Olympics, and British wins in boats, the velodrome and the Olympic stadium offer a feel-good moment. For some of ‘us’, the first person plural always induces a certain ‘Gott mit uns’-type queasiness, and the thought that the scope for identification between sinewy athletes and the British viewing public, sofa-stranded and bloated, is a bit tenuous. Still, as the economy continues to crap out, we blear-eyed viewers learn we care more than we ever thought about pukka equitation or the mysteries of luffing (‘Oh no! Saskia’s failed to trim her spinnaker!’). Daily Mail-reading immigration-haters whoop heartily over the successes of Christine Ohuruogu and Mo Farah, and rouse themselves from the sofa to dance ‘the Mobot’.

On the Beeb’s wrap-around coverage, the fortunes of Team GB athletes are brooded over in the longueurs between the action and the fillers. In the studio, Sue, Gary and the rest struggle to drum up interest in the unicycle slalom or the Belgium-North Korea face-off in the mud-wrestling, with poolside filler-bites from breathless paddlers and the odd noddy with normals. At the time of writing, ‘we’ have surged up the gong-heap after bagging another six golds on day nine, with commentators in the Mail and elsewhere quick to point out that, per head of population, Britain is doing better than China and the US. But there’s more than one way to manipulate the figures. A GDP-per-capita-adjusted table for the top 25 medal-tallies amassed by the end of the 2008 games, using a Borda Count-style scoring for different medals (3 for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze) makes interesting reading:

As with premiership football, it’s a level playing-field before you throw in the money. It also needs to be borne in mind that Ethiopia, for instance, doesn’t go in much for dressage, or Mongolia for kayaking. Why does the International Olympic Committee consider some sports gamesworthy but not others? Some of the choices are class-bound, others the bones of the Victorian imperium. Why archery but not darts? Clay-pigeon shooting but not angling? There’s the gamut of bog-snorkelling, gurning, wife carrying, cheese hurling, camogie, camel wrestling, extreme ironing and ferret legging, to say nothing of the manifold varieties of eating contest, all overlooked by the IOC. Discarded Olympic events include horse long-jumping and jeu de paume, or ‘real tennis’ – in 1900 Britain managed a creditable silver medal behind the USA, from a starting field of two. Polo made the cut during the heyday of the British Empire, but was dropped after the Hitler games in 1936 (‘we’ top the medal-table for that one, with nine).

In its choice of sports, its obdurate francophonism and its presiding personnel, the IOC is oddly atavistic. Many of its senior figures are feudal overlords whether superannuated or still very much in in the saddle, such as Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and the Princess Royal, of ‘us’. Or maybe the atavism isn’t so odd. Many Olympic sports are the hanging-on entertainments of empire, but in this, as in its corruption, the irruptions of old power and nationalism redux, the Olympic spectacle gives a fair snapshot of international civil society, anno 2012.


  • 7 August 2012 at 2:56am
    David Gordon says:
    A more creative approach to making such games representative of the host country is needed. Cheese-rolling would be all very well, but we should think more of expanding existing categories. Sabre, foil and épée are all perfectly acceptable, but the British don't do very well at these: national variants of fencing could include the competitive disposal of nicked silver, and the erection of knotty pine around the Olympic village. And just think what we as a nation actually mean by handball...

  • 7 August 2012 at 7:06pm
    streetsj says:
    The GDP/capita analysis is only relevant for some events. As the East Africans prove so frequently you don't need wealth to practice long distance running. Elephant dressage on the other hand...

  • 13 August 2012 at 8:02am
    streetsj says:
    I meant to add that "oh no! Saskia's failed to trim her spinnaker" is so brilliant it is going to get repeated outings chez moi. And already has done.