Sunday, 21 August 2016

Lessons of Rio

So Britain has come second in the Olympics medals table.

Most of us Brits will take some pleasure in that result.

Letting the elation pass, though, and thinking about the symbolism of the games, gives a somewhat less satisfactory picture.

Iconic moment from the iconic athlete Mo Farah:
Completing the double double: 5000 and 10,000 metres in successive Olympics
First of all, what were taking so much delight in isn’t winning, it’s coming second. Winning would have meant beating the US, and no one even dreams of pulling that trick off. Not just in the Olympics, come to that. 

Secondly, while finishing ahead of China is satisfactory, it’s not entirely down to British prowess. A part of it reflects China’s underperformance. Again, that’s probably a reasonably accurate reflection of the world situation: between Britain and China, what’s being played out is a zero-sum game. What one gains is lost by the other, good performance here is mirrored by poor performance there. Similarly, in other fields, China’s growing economic and political might won’t pull Britain up with it, but lead to her decline.

Finally, add together the medal hauls of all the other EU nations – a post-Brexit EU, in effect – and they’d be way out in front, with 74 golds and 235 medals in total. In comparison, the US took 44 golds and 119 medals in all.

So, if they pull together, the European nations can beat the world – even the US. Only if they pull together.

The big lessons for the British? They could do it without us.

Still. We can enjoy the Olympics results for now. As long as we don’t think too hard about our post-Brexit future. In a world where we face the real China and the indomitable US. On our own.

Postscript: the talk today is of Mo Farah, who took gold in both the 5000 and 10,000 metre men's races, in both London and Rio, being given a knighthood. 

Sir Mohammed? Wouldn’t that be fabulous? A magnificent poke in the eye for all the xenophobes and Islamophobes: a Somali immigrant and devout Muslim winning a knighthood for the glory he brought Britain...


Anonymous said...

I am sorry you feel so negative about your own nation doing well, why is that and we shoul be proud and celebrate our success, the failure of others is exactly that. I understand that there is a desire to make mass recognitions for the GB team not just Mo. The team represents many faiths and origins I don't believe this has ever been a problem for the UK to honour and respect achievment whatever the origins of an individual. Failure or success is the dividing line interestingly Mo doesn't train in the UK, he trains in the USA so who should be honouring him?

David Beeson said...

HL Mencken said that a cynic was someone who, whenever he smelled flowers, looked around for a coffin. I may have fallen into that trap myself a little – going for excessive cynicism for effect (failed effect, too, unless it brought a smile to your lips).

In reality, I took delight in Team GB's success and followed the changes in the medals table avidly. I'm pleased we came second.

I suppose, though, what I would want to do in all seriousness is relativise that success. It was second place, not first. It was certainly aided by China's unusually poor performance. I do also believe that it's important to see what the Olympics says about European unity: the EU as a whole did far better than anyone. A team that contained the best of Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, etc. would beat even the USA.

Still, the difference between you and me may be smaller than one might think. After all, you pointed out that Mo trains in the States. I think that's just the kind of relativisation that I was looking for: a willingness not to be carried away with our pride but to see that the success, while gratifying, was by no means all down to Britishness...