Putting the Great in Britain
Cheers, Mitt Romney. His doubts about the UK’s ability to stage a successful Olympics united a nation in ‘Why, we’ll show you, mister!’ fist-shaking, even before Danny Boyle’s perfectly pitched opening ceremony – that long-lost feat from ancient times of actually making us feel good about ourselves.
The world felt good about us, too. Incredulous athletes – cyclists, archers, canoeists… – wide-eyed at mightily roaring crowds. London appeared more fresh-faced than at any time since the 1960s, bursting with modern stadia. More playful, too, and on a whole new scale: for Twiggy’s coy pout and mini-skirt, read sand and bikinis in Horse Guards Parade. And our sportspeople vacuumed up medals like precious metal-addicted Dysons.
Thus, a capital bathed in euphoric disbelief. Didn’t it? “Not very much doubt about that,” says London resident, writer and broadcaster, David Aaronovitch. “I haven’t spoken to anybody who isn’t surprised like hell how well it’s all gone, how well we’ve done and how smooth things are.”
So if the Olympics was the mother of all parties, are we now destined for an unparalleled hangover? Will the shift in mood sustain and build something new, or collapse in the face of recession-fuelled pessimism?
“It’s bread and circuses, of course, but it’s a pretty good circus you have to admit, and we’re not running out of bread just yet,” says media commentator Steven Baxter. “The Games have certainly helped people feel better about themselves and the country they live in for a while, but 16 days can’t undo the past few years of pain.
"We’re still facing up to a pretty gloomy future with not very much money coming in and an awful lot going out – and a government determined to cut, cut and cut again. I’d like to hope that the optimism could make things better, but I really can’t see it happening.”
Christine Griffin, professor of social psychology at the University of Bath, is sceptical about how far the Olympics bubble is thought to have stretched. “There’s a more positive mood in certain areas, but it’s not clear how widespread it is. If you’re in a bad state economically – you’ve just lost your job, you face repossession – to see everybody all jolly can make you feel worse.”
Still, there may yet be long-term benefits. “It’s not so much the mood of optimism now, but events might act as a touchstone. If there are attempts to cut funding to sports amenities, some might be more likely to say, ‘Don’t do that’, and to get involved.”
Over the course of an hour one Saturday night in the Olympic Stadium, three British athletes won gold: a mixed-race heptathlete, a 10,000m runner who’d sought refuge from Somalia, and a pale-skinned ginger-haired chap in the long jump. “It was absolutely terrific,” says Aaronovitch. “You couldn’t have picked upon a series of people more likely to be bullied at school, and it was our best athletics night ever.”
Might this be the real legacy – a widespread change in perception of what it means to be British? “It’s easy to make that argument, yes. It’s not an intellectual argument, but then often you’re simply dealing with competing sentiments offering competing pictures in very simple terms for people to latch on to.”
For the moment, at least, Aaronovitch senses a change in mood. “My view is that we were beginning to – maybe we still will – go into rather a narrow, nasty place, in which we’re effectively saying, ‘We don’t want to give the poor any money’, ‘We don’t want to let immigrants in because we blame them for what’s happening to us’.
"For the moment, at any rate, that mood of closing in on ourselves has lifted a bit. We feel genuinely better about ourselves, even if we do face unemployment and a continuation of the recession. The impetus towards a narrower, meaner Britain has been broken.”
“People do feel better about Britain, and being British, than they did before,” agrees Baxter. “People held their breath and hoped that we wouldn’t be a laughing stock. The Games have been organised well and the elite athletes have provided medal success.
"That’s a good thing in itself, but you have to wonder whether the elites are being overfed at the expense of the grassroots – at the moment, because the Olympics are here, we’re okay with that, but we might not be when we see our local swimming baths closed down. A happy society is something to strive for, but happiness is fleeting.”
In the meantime, says Aaronovitch: “You look at the medals table and realise we’re now a sporting superpower. We’re surprised at what we can do. Any parent knows the terrible moment when their child gets to believe they can’t do something.
"Collectively, as the nation’s children, discovering in fact we can do something – make good volunteers, have good sports people, etcetera – it’s a corrective”.
It’s also a relief. Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, says: “Before the Games, it looked like the event was going to be a tightly controlled, corporate-branded phenomenon that would squeeze out the human feeling; in fact the opposite happened.
"I know people say that what they’re happy about is the gold medals, but I think the real high comes from the sense of a shared experience, and of course it’s often easier to get people interested in sharing such an experience when it’s characterised by victory rather than failure. But it’s the sharing not the victory that really energises people, I think.”
London 2012 served as the antonym of 'Death of Diana 1997'. A nation bound in apparent collective joy rather than apparent collective grief. Fifteen years ago we demanded the Queen start sobbing, the more uncontrollably the better. Post-PR makeover, by June 2012 we were happy to be wowed by her ability to wave at boats. Two months later she was leaping from a helicopter with James Bond. Little wonder we were awestruck.
So is part of the Olympic legacy a further cementing of monarchy? “I think so,” says Aaronovitch, “and I was struck by something else. They brought William and Harry into the BBC studio. I’m no kind of royalist whatsoever, but they were good. In so far as people like that could be ordinary, they were.”
It was a fine week for the political status quo. Barely had the head of state landed in the stadium when the constitution itself was secured, word of Nick Clegg’s raising the white flag on Lords reform making but a tiny dent in the Olympics-saturated news cycle.
The Union as a whole had a good Olympics, with its ubiquitous flag. A flag we’d become ashamed of, having seen it ceremonially taken down in embarrassingly far-flung corners of the globe – ‘Goodness me, I’m so sorry… whatever were we doing out here?’ – or framing the hate-filled faces of the National Front. Following Euro ’96, when English fans realised the cross of St George was theirs, and the onset of devolution, it really only turned out for village fetes.
We’re a way out from the independence referendum yet, but even so, pity poor Alex Salmond. “In Scotland, when Andy Murray puts on the Union Jack or Chris Hoy talks about ‘we’ in the sense of Britishness, that message has got to feed through,” says Aaronovitch.
“It would’ve been better for [Scottish Nationalists] if the whole thing had gone wrong – ‘We’ve got great sportsmen, but London’s let us down’ – but they can’t really say that, can they?”
Remarkably, nor can anyone.