Hosting the Olympics comes in the midst of a difficult period for the UK. In the last few years we’ve seen journalists, politicians and bankers come under intense scrutiny for compromising public trust. Economists predict that the country is on the verge of dipping back into recession for a third time. Austerity measures and riots have kept the papers busy, fees of £9000 per annum will all but price the less wealthy out of university, and, just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, Cher Lloyd’s indescribably appalling ‘Swagger Jagger’ reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart last summer.
It’s a portrait of doom and gloom which even the impending Olympics couldn’t alleviate – in some cases, it just fuelled the fire. The sense in hosting the 30th Olympiad during an economic downturn was questioned vigorously before the Games, and will probably be questioned vigorously after the Games, regardless of their legacy. Detractors heaped scorn upon the Games logo, their mascots and the spiralling cost of the project months in advance, saving their vitriol in the weeks beforehand for the G4S security recruitment debacle, the ticketing process and Olympic Family/corporate privileges such as separate road lanes and plum seats at events. Even following Danny Boyle’s widely acclaimed Opening Ceremony there were digs to be had, as empty seats, a venue food/water shortage and Team GB’s gold medal drought after four days caused public outrage – and let’s not forget the diplomatic crisis incited by a North/South Korean flag mix-up in the women’s football competition just days before the Games officially began.
With such pervasive home-grown press negativity beforehand, the only way to respond was by rebuffing the critics with a well-organised, inclusive Games, a healthy medal total for the home nation, and enough public support to prove that taxpayers wanted the £9.3 billion monster they’d funded. Fortunately, all three boxes seem to have been ticked.
It’s no generalisation or misleading media propaganda that Britain is in the throes of Olympic fever. An estimated 88% of the British population has watched these Olympics at some point, with 27 million watching the Opening Ceremony, while prior to that 10.2 million took to the streets to see the Torch Relay. Twitter has seen almost three times as many ‘#TeamGB’ hashtags in tweets as ‘#TeamUSA’; considering the disparity in population size between the two, and the fact that American viewing figures for this Olympics have surpassed those of any other Games (Atlanta ’96 and Los Angeles ’84 included), this is no little achievement. Their effect has been such that support for Scottish devolution among the public has actually dropped by three percent since July 27th, for which The Independent suggests the ubiquity of Union Flags has been a catalyst. The adage is that the Brits love an underdog; you have to wonder whether the overwhelming public support for London 2012 is at least partly a response to the relentless criticism it received beforehand.
Yet the last week’s national veneration for Team GB is surely a reaction to the negative climate of the past few years. That the country is desperate for an opportunity to party was evident during the Diamond Jubilee weekend, with around 10,000 street parties taking place and 1.5 million people descending on the streets of London to watch the celebrations. The Olympics have built on this air of celebratory patriotism, and offered escapism not only through entertainment, but by making the 541 athletes of Team GB the most important figures in the public sphere for a fortnight. Where Britain’s authority figures have failed us through expenses, phone-hacking and banking scandals, its athletes have succeeded through hard work and determination. That our sportspeople uphold the romantic tenet of ‘hard work = success’, when those with power have consistently shown an appetite for greed and corruption instead, is uplifting to the public.
It’s not just the athletes, either. 70,000 people are volunteering unpaid at the Games; it’s deeply encouraging that these thousands (along with the 170,000 who applied unsuccessfully) were prepared to work for no benefit other than sharing an experience and ensuring the events ran as smoothly as possible. The Games Makers, whose contribution has surely been the most conducive resource for London 2012’s continued success, have not merely carried out their menial tasks; they’ve done them with the best of attitudes, giving the Games a heart and soul. For them to become the defining symbol of this fortnight would befit their altruism and be an inspirational legacy.
What happens when the party’s over, though? While it won’t be over as soon as the Closing Ceremony is, with the Paralympics still to come (half a million tickets for which have been sold since the start of the Games), it will be interesting to see whether the regeneration of east London will be reflected in a rejuvenated public. Whatever the ideological issues with jingoism – primarily, the fostering of a ill-reasoned mindset exemplified by this tweet by Piers Morgan – it gives people a common topic to bond over, creating a sense of community. A sense of community improves public spirit. Could an improved public spirit, then, boost the economy?
It does seem farfetched, but with the Games having had four billion viewers worldwide, there’s certainly potential for a spike in tourism. A palpable national pride is far more likely to endear the world to holidays in the UK than a sullen, apathetic population. As more strangers talk to each other on the Tube about the Olympics, the usual wall of suspicion between the people becomes weaker. In a nation whose paranoia is evident from its surveillance agenda (the UK has 1% of the world’s population, but 20% of its CCTV cameras), it could even be the first step to a shaking off the nation’s ‘emotionally repressed’ stereotype – hardly a bad result.
The London 2012 motto is ‘Inspire a generation’. With what we’ve seen over the past week, hopefully it will be inspiring all generations – not only to get down the gym, but to look to the future with optimism. The success of Team GB’s athletes has proven that background is no hindrance to glory, with many of the most familiar medallists coming from state schools – Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah to name a few – and can hopefully boost the morale of those the recession has hit hardest. Sport may be escapism, but its consequences can certainly be real – and hopefully the Olympics will mark the point at which Britain regenerates, is reenergized, and resolves the underlying issues that have made the last few years so tumultuous.