Grasping the Olympic enigma
The hype and nationalistic overkill is enough to put off even the keenest of sports lovers, writes Peter Manson. But the left needs to maintain a sense of balance
As the Tory-led coalition government continues its attempts to impose austerity on the British people, the Olympic Games have provided the whole establishment with the opportunity to relentlessly, and with some success, push the message that David Cameron has been unable to convince us of directly: “We are all in it together.”
The blanket coverage - so much so that newspapers from the Mirror to The Daily Telegraph have been leading with page after page of sports coverage, which has also relegated reports on the euro crisis and Syria to minor stories in BBC ‘news’ bulletins - is intended to enthuse the entire population. We can all be proud of both the British organisation and the British performances, which we, the people of Britain of whatever background, can all share in and feel associated with. Whatever our ethnicity, religion or class, we do, after all, share common interests by virtue of our Britishness - that is what we are meant to accept. Of course, the effects will soon begin to wear off, but the Olympics have definitely provided the ruling class with a much-needed boost.
Speaking as someone who enjoys sport, I can more than appreciate the talent, skill and artistry of athletes of every nationality. I can also feel an affinity with competitors who may speak and think as I do and may share a similar working class background to me (taking into account that around half the British medallists in Beijing four years ago were public school-educated and that this proportion is unlikely to have changed much in 2012). But I reject the nauseating ‘God save the queen’ nationalism which we are meant to swallow, as we watch every step, throw, jump or stroke. The record number of British medals, we are meant to infer, are won at the expense of - and in competition with, obviously - the athletes of nations less talented and less organisationally capable than ours.
Of course, the organisational success can hardly be put down to the ‘free market’ and private enterprise - no matter how much the ideologues of capitalism would have preferred that to be the case. True, the big transnationals paid millions for saturation advertising (sponsorship) and scores of companies, large and small, won lucrative tenders for the provision of facilities and services. But the G4S scandal exposed the reality of their dependence on the state. We have seen a gigantic, seven-year effort and vast expenditure by that state - not just to ensure the high-quality stadiums, velodromes, halls, pitches and pools were delivered on time, but to carefully target for special subsidy those disciplines where it was felt British athletes could challenge for medals.
As Mike Marqusee puts it, “These days our boxers, swimmers, gymnasts, etc are every bit as state-subsidised as the Cubans and East Germans of old, who were reviled for their spurious amateurism. Today, the advanced capitalist societies rally under the standard of elite ultra-professionalism, a state- and corporate-sponsored professionalism presented as the epitome of individualistic dedication, single-mindedness, self-will. Egocentric qualities from which, somehow, it’s asserted, the community automatically benefits. There is a case for state support of elite sports performers, but in relation to the overall objectives of ‘sport for all’ - ie, public health - it’s as dubious a strategy as trickle-down economics.”1
Now we are expected to ignore the non-availability of sporting facilities for the masses and concentrate on celebrating the victories of Jessica Ennis, Ben Ainsley, Chris Hoy, Andy Murray … without getting frustrated with those who ‘let us down’ by their disappointing performances. Like the 17-year-old who was arrested and handed a harassment warning after tweeting to diver Tom Daley: “You let your dad down. I hope you know that” (Daley, who recently lost his father, and his diving partner could only manage fourth place).
Nevertheless, as everyone knows, Britain is heading for its biggest tally of gold, silver and bronze since 1908, and looks certain to finish third behind China and the US in the medal table. And these victories have come hot on the heels of another cause for celebration - Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony. The headline of our article last week - ‘Establishment’s contradictory coup’ - summed up its achievement. The ceremony was, Eddie Ford noted, “a complex and contradictory phenomenon that represented another attempt at rearticulating British national identity”.
Comrade Ford put it this way: “It was a further elaboration of the post-World War II ideology of bourgeois anti-racism predicated on an ‘inclusive’ nationalism embracing the Smiths, Patels and Adebayos as equal subjects under the crown. With everyone safely herded into the big, official anti-racist tent, subscribing to the same, mythologised ‘anti-fascist’ British history, the real and hard-won democratic gains of the working class can then be being partially championed and appropriated by this new British nationalist paradigm.” All in all, it was “a brilliant coup for the ruling class”.2
It has to be said, however, that the contradictions and complexity of the occasion seem to have been lost on many comrades. Take the two main far-left groups, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England and Wales. They both focused mainly on one side of the picture - opposite sides, as it happens!
SPEW, whose pre-Olympic coverage was along the lines of ‘The money would have been better spent elsewhere’ and ‘What about the workers?’, has now concluded that socialists should not be such “spoilsports” after all. Rather, we should enthusiastically join in the general celebratory mood.
It was the opening ceremony itself which caused this change of heart. As Sarah Wrack commented, “The usual format of this sort of event - the perfectly coordinated parades, intricate human pyramids, feats of pyrotechnics - leaves us impressed, maybe even awestruck.” However, the July 27 extravaganza “didn’t just impress: it engaged. Every working class person in the country could identify with bits of what they saw …”
Comrade Wrack continues: “There were royals and celebrities, of course, but these were a side dish, not the main meal. The undisputable stars of the show were the 600 NHS workers swing dancing, the 500 Olympic site construction workers lining the tunnel as the torch made its entrance, the young volunteers jumping up and down on giant beds or dancing together in the two-up, two-down.”
Admittedly “It wasn’t a programme for socialism. But, in the main, it was a celebration of, by and for working class and young people.” And “this fantastic event” has been followed by “amazing shows of human talent - Jessica Ennis, Mohamed Farrah, Usain Bolt - a cheer roared out whether they were ‘Team GB’ or not. The Socialist congratulates all competitors and medal winners.”3
Despite their writing off of the Labour Party, even as a site for struggle, the SPEW comrades come across as Labourites. It is right and proper apparently that working class gains should be celebrated as part and parcel of the achievements of Great Britain and the UK constitutional monarchy state. Just as our rulers would have it. In fact some have compared Boyle’s show to a huge Labour party political broadcast - Miliband is more than likely to recall it lovingly when the next general election comes round.
For its part, Socialist Worker, while acknowledging the ceremony’s contradictory nature in its brief comment, downplayed the significance of not just the spectacular, but the games themselves. Its article remarked: “There was a stunning depiction of the industrial revolution, a view of the suffragettes and some early trade unionists, recognition for multicultural Britain and a strong celebration of the NHS. There was even a glimpse of a lesbian kiss.” However, “It was much more positive reinforcement for the monarchy than any of the jubilee events.”
The article continued: “The Olympics remains dominated by corporations and nationalism. And it’s surrounded by a militaristic regime of missiles on tower blocks and soldiers on the streets. It has absolutely nothing to do with saving the NHS, taking on the Tories or celebrating struggle. The ceremony didn’t change that.
“But the reception for the opening ceremony tells us something about Britain today. There are lots of people who cheer when they see our class get any sort of good coverage - and who would love to see a big fight for the NHS. If the Labour Party and the union leaders were not so timid in their defence of public services then people might not project so much hope onto an Olympics opening ceremony.”4
That was last week. But this week it was business as usual, with the meagre coverage noting only failure - in terms of the hoped-for economic boost, deserted shopping centres, empty seats, etc. Not exactly profound. The internal Party Notes carried a paragraph which sums up the dismissive attitude:
“Whatever brief effect the Olympics have, it won’t last. ‘Team GB’ medals won’t be much of a consolation when news of crisis, cuts, job losses and pay curbs return to the front of people’s consciousness. And the ‘We are now all multiculturalists’ line peddled by The Sun (!), etc will soon look ridiculous, as scapegoating and whipping up of division returns.”5
Of course, the comrades are correct to say that the Olympic atmosphere will not last. But is it true that there will be no long-term effect? I doubt it. Events like the opening ceremony - not to mention big sporting achievements - tend to remain in people’s consciousness for a considerable time. Our job must be to fully analyse and assess the contradictions of the establishment’s coup, so as to be able to combat the nationalistic effect, not wish it away.
However, what really stands out from that brief comment in Party Notes is the final sentence. The SWP just does not get multiculturalism. Its prominence in the ceremony was not simply a concession, not just an acknowledgement of progressive advance. Multiculturalism is now an essential part of the bourgeois ideology of British chauvinism. For example, here is a snippet from the rightwing Daily Telegraph columnist, Michael Deacon:
“Mo Farah is an immigrant. Jessica Ennis is mixed race. Most of our gold-winning rowers are women. Clare Balding, the BBC’s best and most popular Olympics presenter, is gay. In other words, these games are a triumph not simply for Britain: they’re a triumph for modern Britain.”6
Does the SWP really think that Deacon - and the overwhelming majority of mainstream commentators like him - will soon revert to “scapegoating” sections of the population on the basis of their ethnicity or sexual orientation? Nothing is impossible, but that is just as likely to happen as a renewed bout of anti-Catholic witch-hunting. It is not as though bourgeois multiculturalism suddenly made an appearance at the Olympics out of the blue: it has been part of the dominant ideology for at least two decades. Yes, the ruling class will look for scapegoats when it runs into difficulty, but it is not beyond inventing new ones more in keeping with current establishment thought.
I prefer the view of comrade Marqusee to those of either SPEW or the SWP: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multinational capital.” He concludes: “Sport does offer a kind of escape, an alternative, exterior focus ... But it is not a vacation from critical thought. I find no difficulty thoroughly enjoying the best of the competition without compromising for a moment a necessarily critical perspective on what the Olympic enterprise has become”.
1. ‘At the Olympics: hype vs reality’: www.mikemarqusee.com/?p=1296.
2. ‘Establishment’s contradictory coup’ Weekly Worker August 2.
3. The Socialist August 8.
4. Socialist Worker August 4.
5. Party Notes August 6.
6. The Daily Telegraph August 6.