22 August 2012

What a difference a Games makes

In the warm afterglow of the recent Summer Olympic games held in London, there has been a certain amount of self-congratulation. Despite the warnings by Jeremiahs in the media and amongst the general populace, not only didn't we cock things up, we actually made the games a success. More surprising to a lot of my compatriots than the logistical success was that we managed something far more elusive than making the trains run on time - that we actually got into the spirit of things.

In some quarters the British have a reputation for being reserved that would seemingly make them mis-matched for the high-octane hyperbole that surrounds the modern Olympic movement. Certainly some people had predicted a less-than-enthusiastic reception for The Games in the UK, not least the man being tolerated in the race for the US Presidency, Mitt Romney, a man not encumbered by tact or, it would seem, basic self-awareness. His misreading of British understatement as lack of enthusiasm shows a man who has clearly never spent time at a professional football match in England. Sport is one of the few occasions Brits allow themselves to throw off the yoke of overbearing respect of others’ private space and openly commune, often fuelled by the accelerant of alcohol. As shocked residents of many European cities during World Cup qualifying campaigns of the 1970s and 80s could sadly testify.

But instead of energetic violence, an army of thousands of volunteers from far beyond the Capital willingly (and freely) gave their time to dress up in an alarmingly-coloured uniform and advise visitors how to get around, determined to prove we are not a nation of total misanthropes. In the ten days or so since The Games ended, there has been a good deal of speculation about how long such warm feelings of goodwill to others can last, or how long we can continue to feel good about ourselves.

Two stories emerged today that made me think that maybe the idea of a legacy is not simply the marketing shtick some have decried it as. First, that high-profile NHS hospitals are being encouraged to expand operations overseas, taking their brands into new markets. While we should acknowledge this partly for what it is at heart - a desperate revenue-raising exercise by the government facing a terminal decline of its own - we should also recognise it as an enormous expression of self-confidence. Although much beloved by Brits, the NHS is so frequently used as a political football by vested interests in public life and the media, it's sometimes hard to see beyond its more newsworthy though less appetising features: waiting lists, MRSA, overcrowding, closed wards, low staff morale and waste. Danny Boyle's brave decision to put it at the heart of the Olympic Games opening ceremony tapped into a powerful British shibboleth. Reaction to today's announcement of an overseas expansion has been greeted with cynicism at the government's motive rather than incredulity at the idea that anyone else would want our hospitals at all (with the notable exception of the Daily Mash). I can't help thinking the reaction would have been quite different a few weeks ago.

The second story was the more quietly-revealed, but no less remarkable, news that Transport for London (TfL) has been appointed as transport consultant to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games organising committee. Given the pre-Games apocalyptic warnings of transport chaos issued by, amongst others, TfL themselves - not to say the collective anger inspired by bus, tube and train failures on a daily basis in the despairing hearts of millions of London workers - this is something of a coup. That we made it work using the world's oldest Underground train network should prove instructive for Brazil, who need to develop the world's newest system to serve their forthcoming Games. 

Both stories reveal the benefits of bringing global insight to the usual blinkered view we can take of ourselves and our institutions. Maybe the Olympic Games legacy will be not sports facilities for the masses or homes for the East End poor (though both of those would be nice), but a greater sense of our own worth, and the ways we go about things. That we can turn "The summer like no other" into a new slogan for a new confident age, as we face up to the biggest economic crisis in living memory: "Great Britain: not always as rubbish as we think we are".

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