Saturday, 18 August 2012

Why The Olympics Matter

By Shane Thomas

After the wondrous Olympic Games in London, I expect I'm already preaching to the congregation with this piece. However, what happened in Britain over the past few weeks bears repeating. And yet, for so long, the thought of the greatest show on Earth reaching these shores was met with indifference.

The pessimism and apathy had begun to dissipate as the Opening Ceremony drew closer, and then a political gaffe from Mitt Romney only expedited this, failing to realise that like one's family members, you can listen to the complaints, but under no circumstances join in - it almost makes me want to see him become America's President just to see how his visit to Downing Street would pan out.

However, the country approached the Opening Ceremony with a tangible sense of trepidation. We'd all seen how China put on a stunning - if somewhat clinical - opening in 2008. How could Britain compare?

Well, artistic director Danny Boyle knew better than to make something comparable. Why try to do something Chinese, when we can do it British instead? This isn't to imply that one culture is superior to another, but simply state that any Opening Ceremony should be representative of the host nation. I hope that in four years time, Rio eschew anything redolent of what we saw in London. 2016 will be Brazil's time to shine, and I hope they give us something distinctly Brazilian.

As we reached July 27th, and the Twittersphere grew ever more frenetic, I pondered that if the Opening Ceremony was going to be a trip into Britain's dense history, then it should be a full and frank review; including slavery, colonialism, bigotry and the general attempts to keep one nation powerful at the expense of so many others.

But as Boyle's vision unfolded, I realised my error of judgement. It's not that politics has no place in the Olympics, but the relative merits of the nation should be discussed in places where tangible change can be effected, and that's not in a sporting arena. What the Opening Ceremony did so well was to highlight the best of ourselves; our literature, the Industrial Revolution, the NHS. It was as if Britain suddenly went, "Oh yeah, we've done some pretty good things, haven't we? Why were we so dolorous again? Who cares, I'm actually looking forward to the Olympics now."

It set the perfect tone. A telling reminder that great things were possible. And for the next 17 days, greatness became a regular staple in Britain.

But it went further than the plethora of medals won by Team GB. Canada and the USA showed that women's football was no longer a punchline. New stars were born, like Ruta Meilutyte, Ye Shinwen, Gabrielle Douglas and Arthur Nabarrete Zanetti. Usain Bolt and David Rudisha cemented themselves as legends. Michael Phelps departed as the most decorated Olympian ever - maybe even the greatest, and we saw genuine social progress as Qatar and Saudi Arabia sent their first female athletes to the Games, despite being victim to some vile online abuse.

And with the most glorious form of osmosis, the feats of the competitors seemed to encourage us as people to be a bit warmer, kinder, and better. Empathy took the place of disdain. It's often said that Britons, and Londonders in particular, use sardonicism and scorn like a security blanket. But it was nowhere to be seen. England's capital was a beacon of high achievement, and we all wanted a piece.

So cut through the hype, television coverage, and mantras. Even the medals are secondary to why the Olympics matter - as much as a sporting event ever can matter. The true purpose of the Olympic Games is to remind us to find the very best of ourselves, whether it's breaking a world record in the Velodrome, or helping a tourist find their way to the Olympic Stadium. Like the most marvellous contagion, brilliance begat brilliance. For example, you may have no interest in boxing, but Nicola Adams' gold medal set an example to us all. Not to get into the ring, but to be more than just ordinary.

No other sporting occasion has such an effect, and nor could it. London 2012 were a dazzling Games because nothing else would do. Faster, Higher, Stronger is more than a media tagline. It's pure inspiration. And so are the Olympics.

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