Wednesday 27 August 2008

Geoff Kidder’s Olympic blog - part seven

The Institute of Ideas' Geoff Kidder on the Beijing Olympics

The Games are over and now all we have to look forward to is the Olympic parade in October. How should we assess the 29th Olympiad in Beijing? Has it just been two weeks of summer fun, or will there be a lasting legacy?

China has put on a great show for the world. Whilst some fans have found a lack of atmosphere and information at many of the venues, as a TV spectacle the event was unprecedented. The ambition and scope of the Games has been unparalleled, the athletics were excellent with some historic achievements, and there were no big scandals. China topped the medal table by a considerable margin. The USA is bitter, and is rewriting the medals table with total medals trumping golds. This has not caught on elsewhere and hopefully will not do so. Gold medals are and will continue to be the true Olympic currency.

In Britain, winning has suddenly become fashionable and even expected. Many competitors were distraught at coming second and winning only silver medals. While some UK athletes did underperform, in many sports such as cycling, rowing and swimming, we seriously overperformed. The lasting memory will be the 19 gold medals, British success and Australian whingeing. This is quite an achievement in our anti-competitive age. Hopefully the winning mentality will last and the competitive spirit revived in all areas of society.

Having said all that, British athletics is still in the doldrums. Dave Collins, UK Athletics performance director, said that the performance of UK athletes was ‘frustrating’. Despite the tough level of competition in track and field events, the performance of our athletes was consistently a case of not getting it quite right on the night. The exception being Christine Ohuruogu, something of an outsider, who got the only GB gold medal in track and field. I hope that athletics will be open to learning lessons from our more successful sports in time for London 2012.

Christine Oruhuogu (in blue) wins the women’s 400 metres final

Top performer at the Games was Usain Bolt who added a note of history with his three gold sprint medals and three world records. The Ethiopian distance runners Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba and US swimmer Michael Phelps made a tremendous mark, but Bolt will last longest in the memory and possibly the history books. Jacques Rogge may not like Bolt’s victory celebration and arrogant persona, but his triumphs will be remembered long after Rogge has been consigned to history.

Roll on London 2012

I am sure that London can put on an excellent Olympiad. The Sydney Morning Herald suggested that London 2012 may be known as ‘the Modest Games, the Diffident Games or the For God’s Sake Don’t Make Such A Fuss Games’. A month ago I might have said the same, but now, as the article continues, ‘Britain is in a mood of euphoric, unnatural confidence’. Hopefully the London organisers will provide a robust and confident games which will override the original plan for a green, sustainable Olympiad with a green, sustainable legacy. Up until now London 2012 has been motivated by every criteria except elite sport and excellence. The lesson of China is that to get a lasting legacy you need great sport in impressive surroundings that will inspire people. If London manages this, everything else can fall into place.

One note of warning. The powers that be are determined to bask in the Olympic glow until Christmas and beyond. A parade in October, then Sports Personality of the Year in December and the New Year Honours list. While lottery money supplied with the support of successive governments has helped sport, it is disturbing the way that political figures are jumping on the Olympic bandwagon. We were told not go to Heathrow to greet the athletes for health and safety reasons, but we could be sure that Tessa Jowell and Gordon Brown would be there to take the glory on our behalf.

At least Jowell has been centrally involved in Britain’s Olympic success story. Brown’s contribution, apart from wallowing in the Olympic glow, is to strongly support the call for a GB football team in 2012. As I wrote in a previous blog, the Olympic football tournament is a peculiar youth event with little worth. Brown’s call has been unpopular in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the idea of a GB team is understandably seen to weaken the status of those nations within FIFA. More generally football fans just wince at this daft debate. Nearly all football fans in the UK would much prefer their team to perform well at Euro 2012, and we really don’t care about football at the Olympics.

If the politicians want to keep the spirit of Beijing going, they should stick to making sure that the resources are there to train the athletes and spend their time popularising the winning spirit throughout society.

I hope that London can put on a more fan friendly show than Beijing. The Beijing Games have been labelled the ‘sterile games’ after their lack of crowd spirit and the rather sanitised atmosphere. I thought that in laid back democratic Britain we could at least improve on this, and develop the spirit for which the Sydney Games are still rightly famous. However, the banning of fans from Heathrow on Monday is not a good omen for a friendly games, and the organisational problems at the Pall Mall event to mark the handover to London on Sunday just add to the concern.


The Olymposceptics have been sheltering under a stone for the last ten days, but will now crawl back out into the light. The New York Times is already renewing hostilities with China, ‘With these repression-scarred Olympics now drawing to a close, Mr Bush and other world leaders must tell Beijing that its failure to live up to its Olympic commitments will neither be ignored nor forgotten’.

In the UK I am hoping that the world-weary Catherine Bennett’s call for the return of the mundane in the Observer will go unheeded. She thinks that ‘normal service will be resumed’ and says that the Olympics are no more than an ‘expensive distraction from real life’.

On examination, Britain has indeed evinced all the standard symptoms of non-football-related sporting euphoria, from the enormous TV viewing figures and tearful hallucinations of the sort last witnessed after the rugby in 2003; to anti-Australian outbursts and tasteless allusions to our historic martial spirit. If such peaks of collective ecstasy could be achieved more cheaply, as some Gradgrinds suggest, by doses of Nice-approved chemical stimulants, it seems unlikely that any artificially induced high would feature the jingoism and xenophobic gloating that currently combine in a mood one expert has depicted, not wishing to exaggerate, as ‘the greatest demonstration of national joy than at any time since the night of victory in Europe in 1945’.

In a similar vein, Will Self says, ‘The fact that someone else can run, jump, row or throw superlatively has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the normal activities of normal people’. These commentators and many others will pour their miserabilist scorn on the significance of the past two weeks, and see it as a kind of summer madness. In the coming months we will need to be vigilant to stand up for the sporting values we cherish and against those who would belittle the success of British or other athletes.

The final word goes to Dave Thomas, an assistant head teacher at Woodside High school in Haringey, north London, quoted in the Observer on Sunday. He may be a touch overoptimistic, but he encapsulates the positive spirit of the moment perfectly.

When I came into PE, competition was seen as a good thing which taught the importance of striving to win and learning to lose with good grace; of losing and improving and coming back stronger. Then, with huge hypocrisy, MPs and high-ranking education officials, who got where they were by competitive exams and interview, decided competition was a bad thing for others.

Now competitive sport is back, and after all these years in the wilderness it looks as if the run-up to 2012 will be the most exciting time to be a PE teacher in Britain - if the government lives up to its promises.

Geoff Kidder will be back with further thoughts on sport in the run up to the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 1-2 November.

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