The London Olympics and the restoration of character over celebrity?

Okay, last week some people were complaining that we did not have enough on the Olympic Games… This week I can see an emerging case for saying we’re doing too much… In our favour, I think there’s much more to talk about this week now it has almost unwound it course…

Tomorrow’s Economist will seek to tell us why the London Games have worked… But today, I turn to Iain McWhirter in the Herald in Glasgow for a usefully human view on the upside of the games

As a morality play it couldn’t be better. Sir Chris Hoy versus Sir Fred Goodwin. Hard work, honest competition and selfless teamwork versus devious greed and financial sleight of hand.

While the athletes were demonstrating British values of decency and fair play, the Royal Bank of Scotland was counting the cost of selling dodgy financial instruments to small businesses; Standard Chartered was being fingered for allegedly helping Iran finance its nuclear programme; Barclays was still in the dock for fixing Libor interest rates; and the Trade Minister, Lord Green, stood accused of condoning money laundering when he was boss of HSBC. Oh, and none of them are lending to small businesses, needless to say, as they sit on hundreds of billions of printed money under the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme. Which has a lot to do with the Bank of England’s zero growth rate forecast.

But while it is a cheap shot comparing bankers with athletes, there’s no harm in a bit of nostalgia for the virtues of Olympic sportsmanship. Britain has fallen in love with its athletes this week, and the values embodied by Sir Chris, every mother’s favourite son, as he staggers under the weight of gold medals. British cynicism has been put on hold for the duration, and we’ve all been seduced by the Chariots of Fire mythology. “Inspire a generation” is the official slogan of the London Olympics and somehow it doesn’t seem as vapid as it did a year ago. Athletes are being held up as role models for young people who back then were setting English cities alight in a very different way. And fair enough: no-one should detract from the achievements of Team GB – they are authentic heroes in an age of vacuous celebrity and ruthless materialism.

Of course, it is not as simple as all that:

…£27 million has gone into coaching, equipping, massaging, and psyching the British Olympic cyclists. Money enhances performance better than any other drug. The National Lottery alone has injected nearly £300m into British Olympic sportsmen and women in the last two decades. It is as naive to believe that athletes have innate moral superiority, as it is to think that they are uninterested in financial reward. Usain Bolt earns over £20m a year, according to the website Paywizard, and even man-of-the-people Bradley Wiggins earns £1.5m. Oor Andy Murray nets £7.7m, and since he was 19 he has been a “brand ambassador” for – you’ve guessed it – the Royal Bank of Scotland. These runners posturing to the cameras on the starting grid don’t wear the Nike “swoosh” for nothing. Athletes are becoming more like rock stars and sports merchandising is a multi-billion industry.

But even so…

My own sporting hero is the flying Scot Graeme Obree who made his bike out of washing machine parts and went on to set two world hour records in 1993 before the authorities banned his riding style. He didn’t need £27m.

No, this doesn’t detract from Sir Chris’s achievement. Britain’s most decorated Olympic athlete has anyway paid fulsome tribute to Obree, who he says inspired him to take up the velodrome. Sir Chris is a sporting hero of a different era, who is unapologetic about his professionalism. There is no virtue in coming last, in being what he calls “plucky failures”. The Real McHoy rides a £15,000 bike designed in a wind tunnel and shod with those “magic wheels”. But watching him fend of the challenge of the German ace, Maximilian Levy, in the keirin you had to concede that it was muscle fibre rather than carbon fibre that won him his sixth gold medal.

In the end, sport is more about the spectator than the sportsman or woman. Athletes are celebrated precisely because they offer moral certainty that is lacking elsewhere. We project onto them the values of fairness, discipline and teamwork that we aspire to in our daily lives. That is what the British people were celebrating on their various medal mountains across the country. We see the best of ourselves in our athletes, and even if they sometimes fail to match up to our expectations, or succumb to the lure of celebrity, the celebration of that decency makes us a better nation. At least for the next four days.



  • The Sportspersons on the British team and the British public have I think shown more character than the celebrity presenters.
    Perhaps its fair to say that Jessica Ennis could have walked down a street in London a month ago virtually unrecognised while Clare Balding, Gary Lineker, John Inverdale and the rest.
    Its been a good Olympics for British sports people and British supporters. Less so for the presenters who seem to want to ramp up the chauvinism (the supporters have shown mostly patriotism which is quite different) and ramp up the innuendo about “too good to be true performances” by foreigners.
    The sportspersons have been almost universally decent and humble paying respect gracefully to competitors. Been particuarly impressed by Mark Foster & Michael Johnson who have kept presenters on the rails.

    One discordant note last night in Womens Hockey Semi Final…….Argentina-Britain and a crowd singing “Rule Britania …….Britannia Rules the Waves” was as tacky as an England football crowd doing the Damnbusters theme at an England-Germany match.
    Thankfully this is the one occasion when Crassness triumphed over Character.

  • Mister_Joe

    I’m no great fan of nation states but it’s totally understandable to feel pride when a fellow citizen wins. People do like, even need, to belong to a group.
    And , I do like Usain Bolt’s comment to his training mate, “You don’t do this for your country or your family, you do it for yourself.
    Superb to see these examples of incredible athletes giving it their all.

  • Greenflag

    Team GB has done very well the best I believe since 1904 ?
    Team Ireland might yet claim a Gold but we’ll have to depend on our lady boxer Katie Taylor from Bray ,


    Her dad and trainer is a Londoner .

    The NI boxers are doing well too with at least guaranteed bronzes and perhaps more to come.

    All in all well done London say we all 🙂

  • I’m very impressed that everyone has suddenly become expert on “sports” of which I ken not.

    As for “the keirin”, I’d freely admit I’d not heard of it these last four years. So I looked it up (wikipedia, but naturally). Very instructive stuff:

    It was developed in Japan around 1948 for gambling purposes…
    A BBC News investigation, reported in July 2008, found evidence that following admission into the Olympics, the Union Cycliste Internationale required (in writing) the Japan Keirin Association to support UCI projects in “material terms”; over a period of time the association subsequently gave three million dollars to UCI in consideration of “the excellent relationship the UCI has with representatives of the Olympic movement.” Four members of the governing body were subsequently arrested in Tokyo.
    As a result of the parimutuel gambling that surrounds keirin racing in Japan, a strict system of standards was developed for bicycles and repair tools. There are currently 50 velodromes in operation that hold races where annually over 20 million people attend and place bets amounting to over ¥1.5 trillion ($15 billion).

    And, foolish me, I thought FIFA was the hall-mark of corruption.

    As Shaquille O’Neial was quoted:

    I’m tired of hearing about money, money, money, money, money. I just want to play the game, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok.

  • There may be a “Shaquille O’Neial”, but I think I meant “Shaquille O’Neal”.

  • Zig70

    One of the reasons why Ireland has no one in the 100m final (running) is because few know who the fastest in Ireland is. In Jamaica, the fastest in high school is a celebrity. Even getting to the Olympics deserves celebrity status, more than a lot of 10min desperate fame grabbers that get splashed on the tabloids. The thing that comes through for me is the crying. The amount of pressure these athletes must be under with teams of people working towards their golden achievement. I’m still fairly angry at the BBC interview with the GB women rowers where they used the phrase ‘disappointing silver’. All part of nation building and ‘calling to greatness’.

  • Rory Carr

    I see a delightful example of character over celebrity in the context of the Olympics has emerged on Twitter where Piers Morgan scolded heroic cyclist, Bradley Wiggins for failing to sing during the playing of the national anthem at the award ceremony:

    Morgan: “I was very disappointed @bradwiggins didn’t sing the anthem either. Show some respect to our Monarch[sic] please !”

    To which Wiggins responded:

    “@piersmorgan I was very disappointed when you didn’t go to jail for insider trading or phone hacking but, you know, each to his own.”

  • Kit_Carruthers

    Rory, Wiggo didn’t actually write that response, it was originally tweeted by someone else.

    Also, as noted above, Wiggo is paid a very handsome sum of money to cycle for Team Sky. He could very well be out of a job if his boss was to go to jail for said hacking & alleged insider dealings.

    Not that I hold that against Wiggo. He is, after all, a fine role model in dedication & application of talent. However, I don’t see how that misquoted tweet shows character.

    My favourite show of respect is revealed in the athletes relationship with the fans. I remember Wayne Rooney once berating England fans for booing a poor performance. It strikes me that no one would dare boo the Olympic athletes because there is no doubt in their honesty of commitment. The modern footballer does not command the same respect.

    It shows real character for a team to hold the unwavering & undoubted support of millions.

  • the future’s bright, the future’s orange

    Mo Farra – whatta dude!