Olympic Britain: Substance 2012

Russell Brand brandishing his medals, made using left-over lamé from his ex-wife’s bikinis. OK, so it’s a stretch, but there’s a definite likeness …

So I’ve waved goodbye to this phenomenon that breezed into my life, swept me off my feet for two weeks and now leaves me pining at the airport, watching the vapour trail. No, I’m not having an affair with a wayward airline pilot, I meant the Olympics. (I hear the Olympic village usually turns into the set of Caligula around day 8 of the Games as pent up athletes jump on each other like bonobos on Viagra. But that’s not the romance I mean.) The question is, do I forget about it and move on? Or could this be the real thing?

The Olympics been a huge success of course. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been moved to tears by an athlete’s sheer guts. We had the women’s pursuit cycling team, all in their early 20s and all having overcome health issues to compete at the top level – and breaking the world record 6 times on their way to gold. Then the Jessica Ennis gold, both of Mo Farah‘s, Bradley WigginsNicola Adams and so on and so on – too many to name. But then I was also moved to tears by Dizzee Rascal performing Bonkers at the opening ceremony – an unusual reaction perhaps. But it was the joy of seeing something so brilliant and idiosyncratically of London taking its rightful place representing Britain and Mr Rascal (as Jeremy Paxman once addressed him) so obviously loving the whole experience. I almost cried with joy during Pretty Vacant too, having worshipped the Sex Pistols since I was in primary school. I’ve been an emotional wreck all fortnight, to be fair. Thoughts now turn to the “legacy”.

dizzee rascal
Dizzee Rascal (Photo credit: gabriel “gab” pinto)

People will talk about the physical legacy, whether infrastructure, facilities or whatever. And they’ll look at sports participation figures through the Active People Survey (something I was briefly involved with; more meatily though, I also designed and moderated discussion groups with representatives of sport governing bodies for Sport England a few years back on sponsorship of grass roots sport). I hope those things do happen. But the legacy I most want to see is an emotional one. I’d like nothing better than for us all in the UK to look at Team GB and see a real example of how we can rouse ourselves from the cheap-tinselly torpor of the last few years.

The Olympics has been a corrective, a breath of fresh air. There’s been a growing malaise in Britain about what our society is becoming, but also a sense since the financial crisis that now is a time of big change and big opportunity. It’s not just that the economy is flat-lining – it’s the sense that our “elites” are not elite at all, but a pile of old cobblers. With greater transparency now the norm, we’ve shone a light upwards and not been impressed with what we’ve found.

Inspirational business leadership abounds

Politicians have looked at times like little more than morally vacuous PR practitioners – and not very good ones at that. Journalists and police have appeared mired in mutual sleaze. And while we had learned to live with the profiteering of the financial whizzes of the City, as long as the Exchequer got a decent whack from it, we hadn’t realised it was built on sand until the crash (though, as a lawyer in the City, I did see many clients signing multi-million pound deals they didn’t fully understand, so I shouldn’t have been surprised). Now we can see they aren’t doing an exceptional job, the profit margins and resultant high salaries seem farcical. Even the intelligent end of commentariat, whom I look to for intelligent insight, often come across as more concerned with having an interesting opinion than an informed one.

Most of this of course has been nowhere near as bad as it has looked. The truth is, we always walk a fine line between success and failure in this country;  we’re never too far away from either, now as when Kipling wrote If (often voted Britain’s favourite poem). But it’s been a disheartening, if fascinating, few years.

Olympic London

The Olympics could be just a flash in the pan, but at last it’s given us a vision – or rather an uplifting, hopeful feeling – of what life could be like if we rediscover some lost virtues (e.g. patience) and blend in some of our historically newer ones (e.g. respect for cultural difference).

The question has been, is there the public will and is there the leadership to grasp this opportunity and manoeuvre ourselves a little as a society towards this chink of light? Or is it going to be, like a century ago, lions led by donkeys again? To be clear, the donkeys for me are as much peddlars of mediocrity like Simon Cowell, Premiership footballers and sadly some of our sluggish big businesses, as the usual suspects in politics and banking.

For two weeks we saw a lot less of the usual:

  • preening sporting primadonnas (nice to see Kevin Pietersen dropped for the next Test – the first victim of our new attitude to these ‘stars’?)
  • obsession with money (how refreshing not to hear how much they’re all going to make, or how many thousand dollars a gold medal is worth; compare and contrast to the average conversation about football, including my own).
  • mediocrity – settling for OK because that’s probably all we’ll get. England’s Euro 2012 “achievement” anyone? Or my own Northern Ireland appointing a young manager with minimal track record (not saying he won’t do a decent job but his appointment was hardly a statement of intent to put us back in the global Top 30).
  • lazy cynicism about ourselves – that we’re rubbish, we couldn’t organise a p*** up in a brewery, etc.
One of our equestrian Olympians about to do some dressage on Kevin Pietersen’s back as he contemplates Vodafone’s new texting tariffs; Our Jessica and Our Laura celebrate serenely. (Pic courtesy of Daily Telegraph)

What Team GB – and other Olympians too – have shown us has been so refreshing. It’s reminded us about what really matters:

  • it’s genuine, there is nothing phoney or over-blown about it. There is no need for hype because an Olympic medal has such untouchable status. Compare that to the false histrionics and saccharine emotion of shows like the X Factor and indeed those tacky streamers they jet out when a football trophy is awarded. The only note that brought any of this back to mind was the closing ceremony, which I thought was like an Anti-Olympics. I’m holding back on laying into it here, as I unleashed my disenchantment with that fully last night on twitter (@ShoreQual).
  • practice, practice, practice – that’s how you get good at stuff, whether it’s sport or anything else in life. The Olympians have all put in countless lonely hours training on horrible days in November. We’ve shifted from being a country that was all about hard graft and not making a fuss, to one that is about slick presentation and self-promotion. But where is the substance? We’ve been kidding ourselves. Perhaps the Olympics remind us we need more Peter Taylors and fewer Brian Cloughs (Taylor famously called Old Big ‘Ead Clough the “shop window” in their football management partnership and himself “the goods in the back”; incidentally Taylor was played by Timothy Spall, last night’s Winston Churchill, in the brilliant film of the David Peace book, The Damned United). It would be great to see us valuing unglamorous graft a bit more again.
  • excellence is to be celebrated – we’ve seen people doing great things and we’ve admired it, not felt belittled by it. Elites aren’t a problem per se; it’s self-perpetuating, unmeritocratic elites that are the issue.
  • nice guys and girls can win – it’s a myth that being nasty or selfish gets you ahead, in sport as in anything else. Look at Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Jade Jones, the list goes on. I was impressed by how humble and well-rounded many of our winners came across. Football’s attempt at a Mr Nice Guy used to be the omni-shagger Ryan Giggs.
  • the British sporting establishment is largely male, but our sporting talent is evenly split between the genders. Britain’s sportswomen showed they deserve more funding and more attention.
  • and of course we’re multi-cultural-tastic, we knew that anyway – but actually we do the melting pot pretty well, especially when you look at the problems countries like the USA, France and even the Netherlands have had.

… and much, much more. The London 2012 slogan was “Inspire A Generation” – but it can do more than that. It can inspire all the generations. London 2012 is a well that I hope we can keep dipping into in the years to come.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

2 thoughts on “Olympic Britain: Substance 2012

  1. Hi Simon

    Like the Olympics – a well founded and rounded post. I agree with almost everything, with the closing ceremony presumably being about laying on a party (wasn’t on Twitter at the time, was multi-tasking while trying to catch up on the weekend’s papers).

    Presumably we now batten down the hatches for column miles of verbiage about ‘legacy’. I think you have a valid point about the collective surprise that, as a nation, we can actually do something rather well – it will be interesting to see where that one leads. My one legacy related thought is that it might have an impact if the GB athletes who did so well are able to personally engage with youngsters to induce and encourage them to get active (it can’t just be a question of facilities – look at tennis). While there’s no substitute for f2f, I wonder what role social media could potentially play?


    1. Thanks Steve,
      Yes we’re going to be bored sh*tless with the legacy debate I’m sure. I hope the government will be embarrassed into reviving funding for specialist school sports teaching, it was one cut that just didn’t make sense to me (and from polls I think most people shared my bafflement).
      Interesting point about social media – and I think it can play a role in encouraging physical activity (perhaps counter-intuitively). We’re already seeing it when people commit publicly to a charity bike ride or marathon: the public sharing of the commitment increases your likelihood to follow through. It partially counteracts the (much more significant) “Bowling Alone” atomisation of society and leisure time, which is the backdrop to all this. It’s a way of bringing the public into the private space, melding the two. And with mobile Internet usage increasing massively over recent years, the opportunities to interact and share over performances, training schedules, PBs etc in real time, on the spot through your phone, can help make training in individual sports a little more public and fun and a little less of a hermetic experience. It all helps …
      But for me this is about something bigger than sport – it’s an opportunity to consciously shift some of our social norms (through changing the terms upon which we talk about work, endeavour, achievement and reward and ultimately how we think and act around those things). The have-it-now society won’t go away overnight, but it is being challenged from several directions now.


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