Friday, 10 August 2012

Co-opting the Olympic Spirit

And so the Olympics come to an end after a fortnight that has delivered more than a few surprises - the opening ceremony was something everyone but Aidan Burley could be proud of, Britain won more medals than it has for over a century, the transport network did not collapse, London was largely empty, and the people that remained (including myself) discovered the fine arts of communication and smiling at their fellow man. As a nation we've rejoiced, and forgotten our domestic and international woes to such an extent that the dire news that the Bank of England had lowered growth forecasts to 0% was barely noticed. No wonder politicians and businessmen are talking about how they want to bottle the Olympic spirit and keep that momentum going.

Sadly for them, they have failed to realise that the Olympic spirit and the drivers of economic policy are entirely different things, and they can not hijack athletic success to get support for their own, less public-spirited, endeavours. 

The Olympic spirit is the result of athletes and sportspeople competing for the honour and pride of getting a medal, and volunteers giving their time and energy to make visitors to the Games and the country feel welcome. On the sporting side, Katherine Copeland amazement at realising she will now be on a stamp says it all -  it was not about money, even if sponsorship and advertising deals will now follow. This is true even in the men's football, where team GB gave their all for their country and the hope of becoming medal winners rather than for the large pay packet that normally entices them out of bed on a Saturday.

The absence of financial motivation in the athletes makes it easier for us to get behind them, and not only share their delight and be proud of them when they succeed, but also share their agony and show them we appreciate their vast efforts when they come up short. Contrast that with the reactions of the fans of the first Premiership club to have a bad start to the season and it will tell you all you need to know.  When people are paid vast amounts of money to compete, our tolerance levels fall, and the national trait of cynicism re-emerges. It's the same thing that makes us despise bankers and top executives - they have their reward in cash terms rather than the adulation of the crowd, and they are failing to deliver to the watching audience.  

This is why the sudden belief of politicians and businesses that they can co-opt the Olympic spirit is both misguided and insulting. When David Cameron talks about wanting to bottle that spirit and use it to get people volunteering, what he actually means is he wants to cynically manipulate it and use it to revive the discredited concept of the Big Society, and make good the cuts in services the coalition are imposing. When the Government say they want the Olympic spirit to continue, what they mean is that they want the nation to forget the mess that they've created, and support them in their failed economic policies because they are trying their best.

The most blatant example of the misappropriation of the Olympic spirit, however, is coming from the Chief Executive of the New West End Company that represents London's biggest shopping streets. When he said "the images of London now being seen by billions around the world can only help attract new shoppers from Asia, South America and North Africa bringing millions of pounds in till receipts" he was not even attempting subtelty, he was simply saying something that amounts to 'I want to harness the goodwill and happiness and make sackloads of money out of it.' That is a philosophy that is so at odds with the Olympians who will not make that much money out of it themselves.