One of the least satisfying things can be listening to people describe national identities. People come up with stereotypes and vague statements that could be applied to any country. However, the process of national soul-searching is not always fruitless when done properly. What I think is under-appreciated is the extent to which the Olympic and Paralympic Games reflected and perhaps defined Britishness. Or at least Britishness in the 21st Century, post-9/11, post-recession, post-New Labour, post-everything-that-has-happened-before. It brought together at least a sizable chunk of the population in a ‘shared experience’ of watching and supporting during the Games, and a far larger chunk in a ‘shared experience’ of simply being aware of and being affected by the Games taking place in their home country. Furthermore, it was simultaneously a show by us for us, and by us for the rest of the world.
The most obvious reflection of Britishness was the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics, where Danny Boyle tried to display what he thought represented our country. I won’t waste words describing or analysing this where others have done so well already (particularly this review by Sunder Katwala of British Future), but given the level of debate provoked by the ceremony and the general approval it received it obviously struck a chord (66% thought the ceremony “represented the best of traditional and modern Britain” with only 12% disagreeing ).
Yet I think sociologists of the future will look to other aspects of the Games as instructive. In sporting terms Great Britain enjoyed a spectacular Olympic Games, finishing third. A confident and competent Britain was also visible in the overall management and delivery of the Games. Despite much inwards skepticism and pessimism led by a typically hyperactive British media before the Games, towards the rest of world we became defensive of our hosting abilities: the perfect example is the response in the crowd and in the media afterwards to Boris Johnson’s riposte to Mitt Romney, who seemed to question the country’s capability to stage the Games. The reliability and effectiveness of the transport systems and the general ability of the capital to digest the Games was perhaps found surprising in a country where self-deprecation and grumbling is the norm, but was actually simply confirmation of our status as an adept, developed nation. Compare this to the problems Athens had before the 2004 Games, South Africa’s white elephants after the 2010 World Cup or the worries about Rio hosting the Games in 2016.
Much was made of the fact that two of the most popular home stars of the Games had recent immigrant backgrounds. Jessica Ennis has a Jamaican father and English mother, while Mo Farah was born in Somalia. Their success and popularity was not as significant as a benchmark of attitudes towards ethnic minorities as that of France’s ethnically diverse 1998 World Cup-winning team. There have been other successful non-white British sportsmen and racism in society has been on the wane over the long-term. However, in an interview after one of his races, when asked by a journalist if he would have preferred to represent Somalia, Farah stressed that he had chosen Britain as his country. He answered “Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.” This could be seen as an articulation of the view that the immigrant can determine their own identity and can be just as authentic a resident of the United Kingdom as someone born in this country.
In the face of this success of athletes of different ethnicities, less enthusiastic messages about multi-ethnicity were expressed. After the opening ceremony showed a mixed-race family, one Daily Mail journalist commented “it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up” describing this part of the ceremony as part of the “multicultural equality agenda”. The backlash following this and tweets by the MP Aidan Burley, who criticising “multicultural crap” in the ceremony, were not just confined to the Left. This misjudgment of the national mood by an MP and by a newspaper normally skilled at playing on semi-conscious prejudices and grievances was similar to Jean-Marie Le Pen criticising the ethnic make-up of the French squad before their 1998 victory.
France 1998 was not a watershed moment for racial equality, not least in football itself. After France’s humiliating early exit from the 2010 World Cup accompanied by dressing room disharmony, player Nicolas Anelka complained “When the France team fails to win people start talking straight away about the players’ skin colors and religious beliefs. When times get tough we find out what people really think. They said Franck Ribery had hit Yoann Gourcuff — Ribery the Muslim, and Gourcuff the good French boy.” In 2011 France manager Laurent Blanc was recorded discussing whether a quota to restrict the number of black and Arab players representing France at youth levels should be introduced (in order to stop players of non-French backgrounds playing for France at youth level before opting to play for a second country at full international level). In French society at large, the grands banlieues, where a high proportion of immigrant families live, have continued to suffer problems of social exclusion over the last 15 years. Meanwhile Jean-Marie’s daughter Marine Le Pen won 18% of votes in the first round of the 2012 Presidential Election for the National Front. This shows the risk firstly of regarding one-off events as indicative of long-term social change and secondly of conflating attitudes towards elite sportspeople and attitudes towards a group of society as a whole.
Similarly, it could be argued the Paralympic Games demonstrated new tolerance towards disabled people as Brits (albeit in less numbers than during the Olympic Games) celebrated the success of disabled athletes and marveled at their stories. The familiar ruthless meritocracy of consumerism in sport took hold, as sprinters like Oscar Pistorius, Alan Oliveira and the United Kingdom’s own Johnnie Peacock took viewers’ attention from other less glamourous sports performed by perhaps just as inspiring athletes. Although the Paralympics was largely a positive celebration advancing the cause of the disabled, it is worth considering whether it shaped society or simply reflected it. Furthermore, as with athletes of ethnic minorities, whether the general population has a more sympathetic attitude towards the disabled is not clear when support for even stricter benefit cuts is high.
In different ways then, the Olympics reflected and even arguably changed multiple aspects of our country. Of course this article is far from a fully developed study of what exactly all these aspects are. But from a sociological point of view, they were highly significant.