What the olympics has already taught Britain
So the day of the opening ceremony has finally been and gone, and now the Olympics are in full swing. But while the sporting showcase continues to dazzle billions across the world, there are several lessons from what’s already occurred that we in Britain can learn from.
- National identity
The concept of national identity is a thorny issue in the UK. With a union made up of four distinct nations, finding the unique concept of “Britishness” has long troubled politicians. Even now, with the convoluted and complex citizenship test, we as a nation are still no closer to defining ourselves.
Except, perhaps, until now. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was viewed with near universal acclaim for the way in which it captured something of the complexity of our national consciousness. We are a nation of thriving industry, but with a nostalgic view of the past, a nation where history permeates at every level. That seemingly remote institution that is the monarchy was even brought into proceedings, being greeted with raucous cheers for her role. More importantly, the opening ceremony has provided the portal by which we can showcase ourselves to the world, and by reading the press surrounding it you can see that we almost seem to revel in our idiosyncrasies and esoteric stories that have baffled outside observers.
- National Pride
The idea that the British still had any national pride has taken a battering over the last 12 months, with the ongoing economic recession and events like the riots that swept the nation seeming to mark a low point of disconnection with society. However, having the Olympics in Britain seems to have unified the country in a celebration of who we are and of our place in the world, which was previously a cause of such concern. The thousands of visitors who have come to watch the events have shown that Britain is still a brand people want a part of; it is now up to politicians, economists and business leaders to translate this good will into a more sustained economic recovery.
Sport has been the vehicle for this upsurge in domestic national pride. Being a part of “Team GB” is something that Britons are consciously and deliberately advertising, and vigorously cheering for the athletes that represent the country, in any sport, has become the de facto response. The major trending topics on Twitter all concern the performances of the nation’s athletes. The interest in the more obscure sports, both in terms of attendance at events (ticketing issues aside) but more importantly due to the excellent BBC coverage across multiple platforms, really is astounding.
All of these factors lead into the issue of legacy. For just how long can this upsurge in sporting interest be maintained? No doubt the good feeling will ebb away as the mania of the Olympics subsides, but we simply cannot forget all about it.
Britain’s first gold of these Olympics was won by the pair of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, and incredibly, Glover only started rowing four years ago, having been identified by the Sporting Giants scheme, and was placed on to the GB Rowing Team’s Start programme, sponsored by Siemens, in Bath.
Glover, however, had a background in high-level sport, having run cross-country internationally as a junior and having been part of the England Satellite Squad for Hockey. At university in Cardiff she had studied Sport and Exercise Science and gone on to complete a PGCE and become a PE teacher. Clearly, she was a prime candidate to pick up for sport.
But for the legacy of the London Olympics to be a true success, we need to look outside the traditional middle classes as breeding grounds for top athletes. The fantastic facilities that have been built need to be maintained and opened up to local communities. This has the potential to radically counteract not only some of the serious medical problems affecting modern Britain, such as the obesity epidemic, but also the social ones as well.
Anybody who works with gangs will tell you that amongst the best ways to break the hold gangs have over youths is to give them structure, discipline, positive role-models but more importantly a sense of self-worth. Competitive sport does that. It’s not just the athletes that have won medals that are bursting with pride – every British athlete is revelling in the support given to them by the crowd. But even if participants don’t reach Olympic standard – and odds are they won’t – there are still positive effects on society that will be far more tangible than any government initiatives that will cost far more.
There are plenty of sports to get involved in, not just the more middle class ones such as rowing, or the aristocratic sports such as equestrian. The current British team contains athletes from all social backgrounds competing in all sports. More needs to be done to help children and young adults engage with these sports.
The most obvious lesson of the London Olympics so far is therefore clear; sport is the key, both for the present, but, if managed correctly, also the future.