Tag: Olympic Games

If it’s not one thing it’s another with poor old Ukraine.

If it’s not one thing it’s another with poor old Ukraine. First they had the geographical misfortune to be located next to Russia, which, according to history, has been a problem for quite a few countries – and not just for immediate neighbours, near neighbours too: I’m thinking of Poland, which also had the geographical misfortune to be located next to Germany, but that’s all forgotten now. Then they had the misfortune to be governed by a bunch of corrupt kleptocrats and oligarchs (allegedly) who treated the nation’s wealth as their own, and who have just presided over the murderous carnage of the last few days.

But now we hear that the Ukrainian Olympic Nordic skier, Marina Lisogor, has just failed a dope test. She’s contrite, obviously, and quick to explain that the culprit is not her but a ‘medicine’ she imbibed in the belief it was no more illegal than a glass of cool, clear Evian water sourced from the natural springs of Lake Geneva. To be fair, the banned substance, Trimetazidine, has only been included in the list of forbidden substances since 1 January 2014, so perhaps it was a simple matter of not getting the memo.

Yet one doesn’t suppose the people of Ukraine, considering recent events, will be too fussed about this latest disappointment – I know I wouldn’t be. One wonders, though, what they would give to be a country where this sort of minor infringement of civilised behaviour is the worst that might befall them and their country. In a roundabout way, that’s what the protesters are struggling for, isn’t it?

Not related, but it’s just coming through that the Ukrainian parliament has just voted to dismiss President Viktor Yanukovych and set elections for 25 May. This is better than the protesters themselves dismissing him, because that would in fact be a coup d’état. Sticking as close as possible to constitutional propriety is the best example to set for the future. The hope, however, one would now expect, is that Yanukovych, who is meant to be in the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, is not planning some sort of unilateral declaration of independence of the Russian-speaking bit of Ukraine. That could make things extremely messy.

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The Olympics show us that patriotism and the desire to win are not incompatible with good international relations

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.

Most people couldn’t care less if the Olympic opening ceremony was political, even though it wasn’t, not really

So, Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony was not really a show to open a global sporting event at all.  It was a political treatise to expound the merits of collectivism and iconoclasm: capitalists, with wide-eyed brutality, destroying the idyll of pre-industrial England; workers united against the bourgeoisie;  Suffragettes triumphant against the monstrosity of paternalistic Britain; the NHS shining like a jewel in the post-war crown of democratic solidarity; CND showing militaristic idiots how to bring about world peace; and then, the really bold bit, the multi-cultural nirvana of New Britain.

That was clear, right?  Wasn’t it?  We all know Danny Boyle is a Lefty, don’t we?  He might be English, but Trainspotting was a film all about the devastation brought to noble Scotland by Tory England.  The drugs simply provide that touch of colour all great films need.  If someone else hadn’t already got to Braveheart, he’d probably have done that, too.  And look here: his Wikipedia page says he might be English but he’s of Catholic-Irish descent.  It all makes sense.  He took that twenty-seven million pound budget and stuck it to Tory-Man.

Only I can’t say I noticed much of this at the time, and I don’t expect most others saw the show as a naked political statement, either.  I wasn’t actually in the stadium during the show, so I could have missed the subversive (or conservative, depending on your perspective) point he was trying to make, but I saw it on TV with everyone else and it didn’t really strike me he was using the occasion to fight the workers’ battle in front of the watching world.

Admittedly, I thought some parts of the show seemed odd and out-of-place.  Most people have an opinion.  It doesn’t mean we’re necessarily right or worth listening to.  Yet, CND?  Something to stir pride?  I don’t think so.  At best they were naive optimists and at worst stooges of brutal communism.  But their symbol, whether we like it or not, was a key icon of that era.  And the NHS, like it or not, is something unique to Britain, and therefore perhaps worthy of inclusion in a show charting our historical progress.  And what seemed like Act Three – the internet revolution – might not have quite captured the seismic nature of the change I’m sure he was trying to convey, and came across in parts as a little vacuous, but that’s just my opinion.  I think placing Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, centre-stage excuses almost anything.

Sometimes we need to be pushed to reveal our opinions, but we all have them.  The thing is, though, Danny Boyle was the one charged with creating the show, and when you give someone a job you have to let them get on with it.  You have to trust them.  Sit on their shoulder micro-managing their efforts and they’re likely to do one of two things: punch you, or produce something so timid and flaccid as to make the whole process self-defeating.  If you don’t want to let them do their job, don’t appoint them in the first place.  And just how easy is it, really, to create a show to satisfy the critical eyes of your home country, the world and the International Olympic Committee?  Not very, I’d say.

A certain type of person tends to see everything through a political prism.  In this country, these people are centred on what we call the ‘Westminster Village,’ branching out to include those who join incoherent pressure groups or religiously watch programmes like Question Time.  I used to watch it, too, but then noticed that, despite the nobel efforts of some panelists, the show seldom escaped a white noise of ill-informed and deeply frustrating factionalism.

And this seems to be how a certain type has greeted Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony.  And yes, both political factions, Left and Right, can’t help but see politics at every turn.  I’m not saying there was nothing political in the show.  Most things in life have a political dimension on some level.  Not including the NHS could be as political a statement as including the NHS, depending on who is making the decision.  The thing is, I don’t believe most people see it this way, let alone care.  The trauma caused by the Industrial Revolution, the advent of Trade Unionism, the Suffragettes, the First World War, CND and mass immigration are all facts, and to include them is not necessarily making a political point either way.  People out there, in the country and the world, have other things to worry about than political conspiracies, and when the Olympics come to town they just want to watch the show and get on with the sport.

What most people saw was not a petty political stunt, but an Olympic opening ceremony with something to please most tastes.  It was a great achievement, not least the sheer logistics and organisation of it all.  How many people?  Transition from pastoral to industrial?  Elevating steel Olympic rings?  Flying dove-cyclists?  Two hundred flames to make one giant Olympic flame?  A parachuting monarch?  That Danny Boyle pulled it off should be celebrated, not scrutinised for political bias.  If there was any political flavour to the ceremony, it was more likely the product of his personality.  When someone creates something, they always reveal something of themselves.  And had Julian Fellowes been given the job, no doubt it would have been just as impressive, albeit in a different way, and with his personal stamp, and people would have been crying a different sort of political bias.  But either way, I’m not sure we should care, especially as most sane and balanced people watched the show for what it was – an Olympic opening ceremony, nothing more, nothing less.