World·Analysis

Britain's suddenly feel-good Olympics

With medals pouring in, British pride seems to know no bounds these days. Good news for a country undergoing a bit of a Canada moment, with an uneven economy and a referendum on Scottish independence in the offing.
Britain's Victoria Pendleton celebrates after winning the gold in the track cycling women's keirin event on Friday, Aug. 3, 2012. (Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

Entering the Olympic homestretch, host Britain has gone from fearing the worst about itself and its athletes' performances to basking in the glow of Olympic gold.

Venues are a sea of Union Jacks whenever the country's beloved Team GB takes to the field. Gold medal athletes such as cyclist Bradley Wiggins and track stars Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah have achieved superstar status.

The country is buzzing. 

It feels a lot like Canada two years ago at the height of the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Even people who normally ignore all things athletic have been caught up in the hurricane of hype.

"I'm not remotely interested in sport," says Rodney Barker, professor emeritus of government at the London School of Economics. "But as the thing has progressed, I have started following it."

London's irrepressible Mayor Boris Johnson poses with British fans following a pep rally for Olympic volunteers. (Lefteris Pitarakis)

Barker recalls how, during the months and years leading up to the Games, there were many in Britain who looked upon the Olympics with what he calls "the usual British cynicism."

But then, he says, "after the opening ceremony, that was just gone."

The spectacular multi-million dollar production saw a cast of thousands stage an epic re-telling of Britain's history while celebrating the country's music, literature and art, from Shakespeare to Hey Jude.

"It was triumphant without being triumphalist," Barker says, adding "it was nationalist but left out the nasty parts of nationalism."

At times dramatic, at times hilarious, the ceremony, orchestrated by Slumdog Millionare creator Danny Boyle, depicted Britain as it would like to be seen by the rest of the world: open, generous and proud of its past while braced for a high-tech and, notably, multiracial future.

For Canadians, it was hard not to walk away thinking Britain was undergoing a rare Canada moment, with the London organizers' homage to the national health service and multiculturalism — and with the referendum on Scottish independence looming in the background. 

There were, of course, critics. One Conservative MP called the ceremony "leftie, multicultural crap." He later claimed he had been misunderstood but by then he had been slapped down by Prime Minister David Cameron.

Can the euphoria last?

The high of that opening night waned in the early days of the Games as British athletes stumbled to a slower than expected start. But then they seemed to find their groove.

Of course, as everyone knows, what goes up must come down. The fact remains Britain still faces all the same problems it did before the Games — debt, recession, austerity, the referendum in Scotland in two years time — it's just that they've been swept under the rug. To the chagrin of some.

Author and editor Simon Jenkins, now a columnist with the Guardian, one of the newspapers that trashed the Vancouver Winter Games two years ago, recently wrote that while these Olympics are "enjoyable and remarkably scandal-free," they're still not worth the taxpayer cost (about $14.5-billion).

His big complaint, though, is that saying that in the current climate is akin to heresy.

"To quarrel with any feature of the games is to be a whinging, unpatriotic naysayer. Normally hard-headed politicians (and journalists) have gone soft in the head," he writes, likening them to flat-earthers, creationists and climate change deniers.

"Everyone knows there is no Olympic legacy," Jenkins says, "but, as with Santa Claus, we dare not tell the children."

Jenkins view is a minority position in Britain these days. The British press is in full flight, trumpeting to the heavens the triumphs of Team GB.

Television announcers delivering play by play of Olympic events have taken exuberance to new heights on behalf of the home team. And the resurgence in national pride may even be making its way into politics.

The real Mc-Hoy? Scottish cyclist Chris Hoy carries the Union Jack during the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Games. (Cameron Spencer / Associated Press)

In Scotland, pro-unity politicians heralded the Olympic opening ceremonies for reminding Scots of why they cherish being British.

There are more than fifty Scots on Team GB, including the team's flag-bearer, cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, one of the U.K.'s most decorated Olympians.

In reply, a spokesman for the ruling pro-independence Scottish National Party, MP Pete Wishart, could only say that today's surging pride in all things Great Britain should have no impact whatsoever on a referendum in two years time.

As for Team GB, Wishart even says he's happy to jump on the bandwagon and throw his full support behind the team representing his "current nation."

"Team GB is our team," he said. "It's as much my team, a proud Scottish nationalist, as it is some sort of Tory from the darkest shires of England."

At this rare moment in Britain, it appears as if politics has almost been cast aside, for the time being. A country that seemed skeptical and nervous about whether it could stage such an enormous spectacle has seen its confidence rise along with its standing in the medal table.

At the LSE, professor Barker says he isn't convinced the Olympics will have much of a long-term impact on the struggling U.K. economy. And he agrees that it probably won't be a factor in any debates over Scottish nationalism.

He does however believe that it will leave a lasting impression on Britain and its people.

"It's not going to be a substantial change," he says. "But it's going to become part of our memory, part of who we are. It's like the death of Princess Diana and how we responded to that, it adds to our sense of national distinctiveness.

"It's grand," he says. 

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