Britain’s great. That was the message that was plastered on newspaper front pages, headed TV bulletins and blared out from radios after London 2012.
Yet even as someone who loves talking about, writing about, listening to and watching sport, the coverage of the aftermath of the Olympics offered me a dilemma.
Success and the press
Firstly, September’s clamour was not without good reason. Athletes from the United Kingdom did handsomely, achieved some startling feats and provided a cascade of memorable sporting moments.
There were bandwagons aplenty to be jumped upon, which was understandable – the Olympics was a wonderful sporting spectacle.
What was bizarre and jarring, though, was how those feelings seemed to effortlessly gain significance in a political and international non-sporting context. Certainly according to much of the media coverage.
For instance, the “glory days showed Britain at its best,” according to Oliver Brown in the Telegraph:
So impeccably constructed were these Olympic Games that Britain is imbued today . . . with a renewed self-belief and a confidence that, for all the daily tensions and gripes in its metropolis, that it can still choreograph a spectacle of life-affirming splendour, one that is in every sense the envy of the world.
Stirring stuff. Alastair Campbell was quick to follow for CNN online, declaring that the Olympics were “changing the way British people think about themselves and about their country,” and that:
We have shown we can do big things well. We have shown we can succeed at anything we set our minds to. We have changed the way many overseas think about us.
These are just two examples of many, many articles, interviews and recordings. We were all encouraged to rest back in our late summer deckchairs and admire just how splendid the whole place was – an example for the world to follow in hope and expectation. Not in sport, but in life.
A big player on the world stage, we were told Britain was back, loved and glorious.
Did this sporting occasion really have implications for UK society and its role in the world community, as heartily promised?
I wasn’t sure then and I’m even less convinced after last week, when Palestine asked the United Nations to vote on upgrading its diplomatic status, a move that ‘implicitly recognises Palestinian statehood.‘
The vote passed on the floor of the UN by 138 votes to 9. The United Kingdom abstained.
It appears Britain’s place – and reception on the world stage – remains little improved.
Indeed, the ‘envy of the world,’ that ‘can do big things well,’ will ‘succeed at anything we set our minds to’ and that ‘changed the way the world sees us,’ to deliver, ‘life-affirming splendour’ decided to sit on the fence – as the dust settled on over 100 deaths from shelling over the issue.
Foreign secretary William Hague attempted an explanation in the House of Commons beforehand – that amounted to wanting to show support for a Palestinian state without too obviously showing support for a Palestinian state.
After civilians saw their homes and families blown apart, the UK didn’t not lead as one might expect a life affirming nation to do.
But don’t worry, we’re good at rowing and cycling – and can put on a hell of a fireworks show.
Because that’s what matters, right?
Sport is wonderful. It can indeed be life changing. It throws up drama and happiness and laughter and tears.
But its promises ring empty if they’re dragged into a world they weren’t made for – and this last week shows the post Olympics coverage threatened to do just that.