And you know what did it? Not the big celebrities, not the men in suits, not the corporations, but seemingly ordinary people achieving extraordinary feats. And the nation has responded accordingly.
The contrast between the competitors and the bigwigs could not be more stark. The contrast between the volunteers and the well-remunerated chief executives too. Ditto comparing the medal winners with those at the top of the most well-remunerated of sporting pursuits, football.
Let’s be honest: Most of us had not heard of most of Great Britain’s competitors prior to the games – let alone the rules of half of the sports that they were competing in. Even with the possibility of success, the financial rewards for most of the medal winners will be few and far-between apart from those that tick the picture boxes of the media and multinational firms. In terms of exploiting their successes commercially, the best many can hope for is advertising something like breakfast cereals (and not without controversy) or car insurance. My point is that few can get away with doing it for the money.
Funding for UK Sport via the National Lottery has provided much-needed stability for UK sportsmen and women. But the amounts are not huge. Prior to 1996, there wasn’t even this. I remember as a young teenager seeing features of the likes of Sally Gunnell working in an office and exercising in her spare time, or Rory Underwood in the days of amateur rugby union in the RAF. It was a disastrous performance at the 1996 Atlanta games (one gold medal) that led to the current system being put in place. Since then, the improvements have been marked. But given the amount of money in grants international standard UK competitors receive, it’s difficult to say that it’s the money most of them do it for. I’m sure many readers of this blog are friends with people who earn more in a year than many UK sporting competitors receive in grants. (Some of you might even be in that position!) Again, few can be doing it for the money. As the table linked at the top of this paragraph shows, funding is dependent in part on how they perform at Olympics and world championships – very short windows to deliver top performances.
You then have how they have interviewed. I’m not talking about accents or media training – more disposition that has reflected lots and lots of preparation outside of the limelight, getting up on cold early mornings – often in darkness to prepare for moments like this.
Much as football is still seen as a national sport, there are also lots of people who in their own time take part in all of those sports that seldom hit the headlines. This has come to the fore on Puffles’ Twitter feed – the rowers, riders, cyclists and long distance runners in particular. All are incredibly knowledgeable about their sports and have enriched my timeline throughout the games with their insights.
There was also a very smart advertising campaign in the run up to the Olympics by the national lottery – with lots of posters of competitors saying “thank you” – reminding anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket that they have in their own very small way contributed towards supporting them – the difference between competing and not competing. Hence the support and thanks going in both directions having that little bit more of a meaning than a top level footballer thanking ‘the fans’. Do you get that same level of ‘connection’ if you support a football club that has no international players?
I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t any womanisers or any drunkards within those staying in the Olympics village. But it puts the performances and the behaviour of top flight footballers – especially over the past 15 years – into sharp focus in comparison. From the Spice Boys of Liverpool to the WaG circus of 2006 (fallout from which led to a complete change of approach for Euro 2012) to the various tales of court cases, allegations of rape and general celebrity excess, combined with underachievement at international level, football has not covered itself in glory. If we are looking at bottom lines, our Olympians are winning gold medals. Our international footballers were not winning world cups (despite some very talented individuals and the best coaches and facilities money could buy) or European championships. They couldn’t even qualify for Euro 2008.
Separating the women from the boys?
From watching several of the women’s football matches at the Olympics, the women were playing as if they were made of much stronger stuff than the play-acting players in the men’s game. Great Britain vs Brazil – in front of 70,000 at Wembley was particularly enthralling. One of my hopes for the women’s game is that people take to it in both playing and supporting. (Find your local club here). During my mid-teens, I used to play football with a group of kids, some of whom were girls in their final year of primary school. Spending months at a time playing with and against the boys sharpened their skills that by the time they got to secondary school, they put pressure on teachers to form a girls football team. They subsequently swept everyone before them in matches against other schools with cricket-like scores.
It was also notable that the first clutch of medals were won predominantly by female athletes – forcing the hand of the media who might have otherwise ignored them. One of the biggest scandals of recent decades is the lack of publicity, support and funding our sportswomen have received – especially when you consider what goes into men’s professional sports. It’s also provided wider society with a wealth of potential role models for girls and young women – so far removed from the artificial world of ‘celebrity’. Fleet Street Fox got it spot on here.
The difference between the volunteers and the VIPs could not be more different either. Reports and comments on the unpaid games-makers have been overwhelmingly (if anecdotally) positive. Compare them and their enthusiasm with the apathetic “Olympics Family” (which if ASBOs were still around that family would be due one) and their sponsors that left all of those prime seats empty early on. gain, comparisons between people who were paid lots of money to be there with those who gave their time and effort to be there couldn’t be more stark.
When comparing the otherwise poorly-trained, poorly managed, badly organised & recruited-on-the-cheap G4S security guards with the professionals from the forces and the police who had to step in at the last minute because of the utter failures of the G4S management, you get similar differences. If you treat your staff badly, train them badly, pay them badly then don’t be surprised if few turn up. One group of poorly paid, poorly trained badly managed people whose only “relationship” to their employer is a financial one versus that of the forces and the police, whose sense of professional duty counts for far more.
The local impact
With the athletes living and training within their local communities, there’s also a far stronger level of ‘local’ affinity – none of the ‘club versus country’ that plagues football. When you live, train, work and interact with – and look out for a local community, chances are they will look after you. Again, anecdotally (judging by tweets from various local MPs, councils and newspapers) there seemed to be a much greater level of affinity with specific individual competitors that has gone far beyond anything I’ve seen with football. Has the impact of the money that has gone into football isolated top footballers inside gated communities to the detriment of themselves and the game as a whole?
All in this together?
Finally, the breadth of events across the games seems to be one that cuts across various society boundaries. You had the granddaughter of the monarch winning a silver medal being part of the same team that also had an asylum seeker – Mo Farah in the 10,000m – winning gold in some amazing scenes in the athletics. This exchange speaks volumes:
Home is where the heart is – and the above is a brilliant riposte to the years of inflammatory headlines from the mainstream media. Twitter users in particular started going after a number of politicians, papers and demagogues in what felt like a huge single unanimous backlash against the purveyors of hatred.
That’s not to say all of the problems of the world have been solved – they haven’t. You only have to look at what’s happening away from the Olympics’ headlines to find that out. But what we have seen is not just the moods of many being lifted – albeit temporarily, but a feeling of what we can achieve when we work together and support each other. If that’s something that we as a society can take and run with, then that’s an Olympic legacy I can more than live with.