Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympics draws to a close. It’s magic and I don’t want it to end. I’ve cried and laughed at everything from my first love, athletics, to judo which I wouldn’t usually watch. With the news that 17 million people tuned into the BBC on Saturday night and 19 million to watch the men’s 100 metres final, it’s clear I’m not alone. Why? Well sadly sport doesn’t alter the course of civil wars or the weather so it can’t change what’s happening in Syria or prevent flooding in Britain. And London 2012 can’t hide the reality that the underlying social problems which led to riots across English towns and cities just 12 months ago are all still with us.
But sport can inspire, it can unite and it can help us believe that we’ve got what it takes to make the world a better place. ‘Unbelievable’ has become the byword of British medal winners at these games. The crowds, the support, the atmosphere and the performances have all been unbelievable apparently. And I’m sure that for those competitors it has felt pretty extraordinary. But wouldn’t it be great if we could harness those things into a force for good, if we could turn the disbelief into belief.
As the British medal tally pushes 50, the Games post mortem has already begun in earnest. And the moment they end, there'll be saturation coverage. After years of wrangling about legacy so brilliantly captured in the satire, 2012, it will be game on. Some will argue that it’s too late before it’s even started. Others will jump on the bandwagon before it really is too late. At a micro level it will be about investment in sport, lottery funding, regeneration projects; the list goes on. Rows about the sale of schools sports fields are already up and running.
But as some commentators have already pointed out, it’s about the bigger picture too. The stuff of dreams and legends might be hyperbole, but it would be more than a shame if we lost sight of what’s united so many of us over the past few days, confounding all that glass half empty talk of failure that preceded the Games. For me, three things stand out: endeavour, emotion and equality.
Endeavour stands out because it underpins so much of what we’ve witnessed. Years of sacrifice by athletes, heroic efforts by parents, support from coaches, families and friends all speak to the power of endeavour. It’s not rocket science. If you make the effort, some good will come of it. If you try harder, it can make a difference. But far too much of our national psyche has got wrapped up into a something for nothing culture, the power of consumerism, the allure of fame. We’d do well to learn something from the likes of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah. Endeavour of the sort they’ve shown is surely a more powerful force for good than any amount of X Factor.
Emotion stands out because it speaks to a new more open and honest Britain. Who could fail to be moved by the emotion shown by Hoy in victory and Adlington in defeat? The outpouring of emotion from winners and losers, spectators and competitors alike has been a moment of national catharsis in stark contrast to the doom mongering that infected so much of the pre Games coverage. When we cry and laugh, we let go and we open up. We show that we can all be vulnerable, we’re all human. The serious side to this is that too much of the feelings we see displayed public life are manufactured and contrived. Rather than claim the tears they’ve witnessed as their own achievements, politicians would do well to think about how they can be more open and honest. They don't need to cry every day. But a degree of humility and honesty; that would be great wouldn’t it? Sorry doesn’t have to the hardest word. Pride doesn’t have to be all stiff upper lip. Remember Diana?
Equality is trickier. For many the Olympics smacks of big business, privilege, even elitism. But taking part means being prepared to be equal. And Britain has one of the most diverse teams at the Games. Whether you’re the Queen’s grand daughter or someone who grew up a stone’s throw from the stadium, once you’re on the starting line, you’re only as good as your last race. Money will have helped you get there, be it inherited wealth or lottery funding. But what will really count is how much talent you have and how much effort you’ve made to exploit it. So when decision makers ponder on how we can create a lasting legacy from 2012, they’d do well to put equality of opportunity high on their list.
Endeavour, emotion and equality don’t amount to a political manifesto. And they aren’t the preserve of one political party. But together they can be a powerful force for good. Motherhood and apple pie? Maybe. But just imagine how it would be if it felt like this in Britain every week. Now that would be unbelievable.