I don’t know who has changed most, me or British sport. I used to love watching the Olympics, particularly track and field, although I can remember enjoying the rowing and hockey too. Now I can barely watch 10 or 15 minutes of saccharine BBC coverage before switching over or switching off. OK, so I’ve moved an awful long way from supporting ‘Britishness’ as a default political choice, but that hasn’t prevented me supporting British sportspeople in the past. But I’ve found it almost impossible in the context of these Olympic Games, even more so than in 2012.
Perhaps it’s the cynicism of the new Olympics, that ruthless product management ethos which demands that sport after sport is swallowed up in an imperial ‘brand march’ that Napoleon himself would have been proud of. Golf, tennis, rugby, football; they’re all part of the empire now. But when some of the planet’s richest sportspeople (some of whom just knock a small white ball around a few hectares of American prize real estate for a living) get even more air time and plaudits than usual, I’m afraid it’s too much for me. It just dilutes the tradition of amateurism which I value, and takes well-deserved attention from those who would never get a look-in otherwise.
But there are more sinister forces at play as well. For the IOC, more participating sports means more televised events, means more advertising revenue, means more power and influence at the geo-political-sporting top table of course. But for the British State, which includes its co-opted communication outlets such as the BBC, ITV, Sky, and print media, the Olympics has simply turned into an irresistible free-for-all of gooey pro-British propaganda, rammed down the throats of an otherwise indifferent, increasingly ‘abritish’, people. The more sports you can throw into that pot, the bigger the demographic.
To my eye at least, it has simply become an orgy of Union Jacks (athletes were forbidden from carrying other national flags apparently), God Save the Queen, happy, smiley, contented fans, and epic stories of brave young Brits fighting for Blighty and bringing home the hardware (and so they might with £350m of lottery money going into their elite performance programmes). It’s as if it was all scripted in advance, which – as anyone who understands how the broadcast media works will know – it was. Only the nuances were left to chance (the final colour of the medals, the odd surprise), the story-board itself was written in advance from beginning to end. Starved of the Great British Bake-off, the Great British this and the Great British that over the summer, the public lapped it up of course. It was technicoloured entertainment; and excellent subliminal political propaganda to boot.
State-sponsored exercises like this in the reinforcement of British nationalism used to be self-assured, understated and discerning in the UK. In recent years they have become superficial, awkward and undignified, as if a woefully under-qualified junior PR manager has been left in charge whilst the bosses stuff their pockets and Whitehall burns. And when a bulwark of the English imperial project like Simon Jenkins bemoans a new (Soviet-style) British ‘cultural cringe’, you know something’s awry.
The mandarins and privy councillors at the heart of ‘Project Britain’ know full well that a second Scottish independence referendum is just around the corner, and to that extent you can forgive them their propagandistic exuberance of recent months. But their obsession with red white and blue bunting, Churchillian rhetoric and free cucumber sandwiches is a high-risk strategy. It left me utterly cold, like there really isn’t any hope for a non-Anglocentric union of nations on these islands in the future. And if they lost me, a rather wet, moderate Welsh nationalist, I shudder to think how it left the people of Scotland, who in the next 18-24 months will pass judgement once again on the kind of state they want to be part of : an averagely achieving sporting nation which focuses on the well-being of its people or a world-beating Ruritania obsessed with its own survival?