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Badminton and Circusses: The Olympics as Distraction

Anybody watching the BBC news in the UK at the moment might be forgiven for thinking that we are back in the throes of the Roman Empire, but rather than “bread and circuses” the populace is being fed with badminton and circuses. Why might one think this? The headline news on August 1st was the story of the unsportsperson like conduct of a number of badminton teams in the London Olympics, who were deliberately hitting the shuttlecock into the net or out of court in order to throw their match and ensure an easier tie in the next round. Obviously a matter of earth-shattering importance and likely to lead to a global nuclear conflict. Or maybe not? Coverage of London 2012 currently dominates all news broadcasts and one has to switch to other channels (remember that without Sky there are a limited number of these available in the UK), in order to find a less Olympic biased newscast or a repeat of some earlier detective story. The Opening Ceremony on Friday 27th July was another case in point. This was produced at a cost of £27million and was designed to showcase a very particular interpretation of the UK and its “story” or history for a global audience. It was memorable and spectacular and included such novelties as Her Majesty the Queen taking part in a spoof sketch with James Bond (aka the actor Daniel Craig) and supposedly arriving at the Olympic Stadium to declare the games open by parachuting out of a helicopter. Only the British could come up with something so wacky and original! Although there was no explicit reference to faith of any description, as the earlier parts of the “story” unfolded, we were treated to renditions of “Jerusalem”, “Abide with me” and “Guide me O Thou Great Redeeemer”. So religion just about got a look in as an element of a culture that has now moved on into technorap and the dominance of the internet. Maybe this is right, or maybe this is all just a grand diversion from the real story?

So what is really happening in the UK at the moment? The economy is experiencing its worst double dip recession of all time. The phone hacking scandal threatens to embroil our Prime Minister whose close friends and colleagues from the media have been charged with offences in relation to certain instances. Manufacturing output is at its lowest for 3 years, as it is indeed in the Eurozone as a whole, and calls for policies to create growth in the economy appear to go unheeded. But everything is fine in the fantasy world of the sports spectacular and we are so desperate to hear some good news to take our attention away from the constant bad weather and economic gloom, that suddenly we become obsessed with cycling, rowing, archery and other such activities. Can you blame us?

What can we learn about ourselves from this? First of course, the power of the media to shape and frame our story and our consciousness of ourselves. Yet we know this is false but would prefer this to the real account of who and what we have become. Second, the ways in which the gurus of behavioural economics (Messrs Thaler, Akerlof and Shiller, Kahnemann and Ormerod) can explain to us how we are so gullible and open to manipulation – e.g. how incentives and the tendency to follow the crowd rather than think things through for ourselves actually shape our responses to external events. Then, finally, are the claims that we can be reflexive and capable of exercising a critical consciousness or of establishing project identities simply overblown and hopelessly optimistic? Where is the evidence that we are not being taken in by badminton and circuses, and how might being a person of faith contribute to some form of resistance? Perhaps once the fuss has died down and we have to return to post-Olympic reality we might begin to see the real issues more clearly once again. One can only hope!

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