So far, except for the odd comedy boo, the generous support shown to all Olympic competitors, whatever their nationality, has been heartening. Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, said in his opening ceremony speech that Britain was (and presumably still is) a ‘great sports loving country.’ Perhaps this explains the greeting? Or perhaps there is something in that ‘fair play’ cliche, after all?
But you may also have noticed (and felt) the surge of enthusiasm whenever a British athlete makes an appearance, rising to a sort of sporting elation if a medal is won. Whether at Eton Dorney or the Velodrome or the Aquatics Centre or anywhere else competition is taking place in these disparate London games, support is overwhelming for and from the Brits.
To some, these two attitudes might seem contradictory. In the interests of fairness, and to show our rejection of petty national prejudice, we should cheer all competitors and winners equally – or perhaps not at all. That’s the way to show true Olympian spirit. And it’s not possible to do this if spectators are getting all partisan about who they want to win. They’re all excellent; it’s just that some will win medals and others won’t.
And to others, effusive support not only undermines international generosity, inclusivity and respect, but is also dangerous. It all smacks a little too much of jingoistic flag waving – just the sort of unthinking patriotism that panders to populism, fosters chauvinism and starts wars. Let’s do away with that.
And at times, it is indeed difficult to know if British Olympic enthusiasm comes from simple generosity of spirit, a love of sport or an uncomplicated desire to bang the patriotic drum. If the people at YouGov asked such questions, they might interrogate the British velodrome spectators and find out how many of them are year-round cycling fans. Perhaps not that many.
But wondering about such questions misses the point, both of competition and the Olympics. The Olympic Games are about a number of things, not least excellence and competition. Medals are awarded to the best performers, nothing for the rest, and the prizes are based on metals of descending value: Gold, Silver and Bronze. It’s all about the hierarchy; it’s all about the grading of athletes, from first to last.
Yet this doesn’t mean the ‘rest’ are worthless. Pierre Coubertin, the founder of the modern games, emphasised that the experience of competition was more important than the actual winning – although winning was, of course, the purpose of the struggle to overcome an opponent. There is such a thing as the Olympic family, and although it might extend itself to spectators and organisers, you are only an Olympian if you’ve competed. And this is a great accolade. A great and exclusive club. To be an Olympian is, to many, the real prize, and the IOC know this and trade on its appeal.
Discomfort at overt patriotism is, perhaps, a phenomenon that reached its zenith in Britain during the 1980s. It was, in part, an understandable response to the jingoism, militarism and nationalism of the world that led to the two world wars, but it slowly incubated within certain political movements and within wider society until it morphed into an unyielding rejection of anything that might in any way be associated with nations and patriotism.
But since then, the feeling that ebullient support of your ‘team’ or your country might be wrong has dwindled. Perhaps the benign and family oriented Royal celebrations of recent years have shown the error (or simplicity) of this argument? Or perhaps critics have just lost their zeal? Whatever the reason, the idiotic mantra of ‘reclaiming the flag from the bigots’ has hopefully been buried deep under the foundations of the Olympic village. Who was it exactly that gave up the flag?
This leads onto the other purpose of the Olympic Games – World Peace! No, really. The truce declared over the period of the games in the ancient world is an important reference for the modern Olympic philosophy. Not only is sporting competition a substitute for military competition, but it fosters understanding and friendships across cultures: ‘I competed against him. He seemed human enough. He told me about his family. Why would I want to go to war against him?’ This is the epitome of what soft power can achieve.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s also worth noting that support for athletes is nothing peculiar to Britain. Any home games gives a patriotic lift to their competitors. That’s what we mean by home advantage. Snide remarks have been made about the regimented tone of the Beijing opening ceremony in 2008 compared to the more eclectic nature of Danny Boyle’s show, but while there is some truth in the claim, once the games started, the negative was outweighed by the positive experience of many cultures and nationalities visiting China. That each country wanted to win made no difference.
It is far better to compete on the field of sport than the field of battle. And if we must measure national virility, it’s far better to do so by counting the number of medals won than by counting the number of countries conquered. Patriotism and a desire to compete are as natural as any human sentiment. To deny that is to deny human nature. It’s far better to harness them for good, which is exactly what we do when the Olympic games come to town.