Friday, 3 August 2012

On London 2012 and its discontents

If there’s one thing that should be obvious to anyone who’s taken an interest in the wave of recent commentary critical of the London games, it’s that most people really, really want to like the Olympics. Scan any online comments section following a piece which doesn’t wholeheartedly commend the games of the XXX Olympiad, and you’ll invariably find invitations to the author to shut up, stop being so damn negative and, of course, to ‘just sit back and enjoy it.’ What is it about the Olympics that makes people want to like them so much, and to be prepared to jettison all or most of their critical faculties in order to do so?   To answer to this question, remarkably enough, doesn’t require very much thinking about sport. If there’s one thing that successive Olympic organising committees have been outstandingly good at, it’s maintaining a mostly invented narrative of the games and their significance. Everybody sort of thinks they know what the Olympics represent and believes these things to be good for them and, indeed, good for everyone: namely, peace, goodwill and unity. In other words, like Christmas but with more to watch on the tele.
             To that list of seemingly incontestable goods, we might like to add – thanks to films like Chariots of Fire and, more latterly, Muse’s chest-beating anthem for the London games, ‘Survival’ – the idea of human achievement at its peak: faster, higher, stronger. What reinforces all of these somewhat slippery notions is the weight of history or, at least, the weight of a particular version of history. The idea that the modern Olympics somehow connects us to our ancient past exerts enormous appeal. Never mind that conceptually the London Olympics have far more in common with Hitler’s 1936 games than those held in ancient Greece; what activates millions of imaginations globally every four years is the thought that the modern Olympics somehow cut through the hollowness of our times and return us to our sweaty, struggling roots.
                The importance of these fantasies is twofold: they enable billions of people around the world to enjoy the games without guilt, and they help to facilitate the real agenda of the International Olympic Committee which is, of course, to make a lot of money for themselves and their corporate ‘partners.’ The London Olympics’ ties with some of the world’s most irresponsible multinational corporations have been well documented, as have the rib-tickling hypocrisies evident in the fact that two of these corporations – McDonald’s and Coca-Cola – appear to be inherently un-Olympian in spirit (slower, lower, fatter?)
            The motto of the 2012 games is ‘Inspire a generation.’ Like so much of the official jargon which surrounds the modern Olympics, it’s an ingeniously deflective piece of marketing but at the same time highly revealing. More than anything, it evokes images of sport at the grassroots level: school gymnastics, local football clubs, oranges at halftime. It seems to urge us to forget the image of the elite, corporate-sponsored sportsperson and instead to look to our own families and communities for that singular spark of physical prowess which might one day set up an otherwise average little boy or girl onto the world stage. It’s yet another nice idea, another reason for the thought police to come down hard on anyone churlish enough to examine the London games with a critical eye.
            The reality is that the most popular part of the Olympics is not a sport at all, but the opening ceremony. The ideal modern Olympics participant is someone who sits, not runs, who prefers a soft drink to a glass of water, a burger to a salad, and who would rather take the car to the shop than walk (BP is another of the games’ principal sponsors). We don’t like to think about these sorts of things, not because they reflect badly on the Olympics brand, but because they reflect badly on us. If we just shut up and watch, the critics of the critics seem to be saying, maybe no one will notice we don’t play sport, eat too much junk food, and buy sweatshop-made sneakers.
The overwhelming oddity of the Olympics is not that a handful of enterprising writers should want to take the time to draw attention to its many conceptual and ethical inconsistencies, but that billions of people across the world are prepared to gather round TV sets and lose countless hours of sleep in order to pretend to be interested in sports they haven’t bothered to follow for four years. 

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