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.


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty