I confess it – I am an Olympics junky! Glued to the TV last night as Bolt, Blake and Weir gave Jamaica at clean sweep in the 200 metres on the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence…
John Reader is right to remind us in his recent post on this Blog that the Roman ethic of ‘bread and circuses’ infused the ancient games – they were a means of social control. Is that what has been going on in London for the last two weeks?
In his book The Culture Industry the Italian Marxist sociologist Theodor Adorno said pretty much the same thing about popular culture – bubble gum pop to keep the masses quiet whilst they worked! Adorno failed to recognise that popular music has provided a soundtrack to insurrection (think Spirituals, Reggae, early Rap music, Punk, Soul, Two-Tone) just as much as it has dulled the senses as people crash in front of X-Factor or American Idol. In much the same way I want to suggest that the London Olympics need not be seen as a way of massaging poverty, recession, spending cuts, debts, growing inequality as we cheer the private school elite rowing to gold or astride their strutting dancing horses to gold. It is undoubtedly the case that just as the ill-judged Falklands War in the early 1980s rescued the desperately unpopular Thatcher government in the depths of recession the warm celebratory glow engendered by wall-to-wall Olympic sports and a Team GB bringing back a record number of medals may persuade people in the UK to forget that we are not ‘all in this together’ and that the rowers, sailors and show jumpers live on another planet from almost everyone else in Britain. Will the games bathe Prime Minister David Cameron in reflected glory?
Now it is true, as the BBC 2 Newsnight piece on 7/8/2012 intimated that the big bucks made as a result of the Olympics will not go into East End pockets any more than more than 20% of contracts have gone to East End businesses ahead of the games. It remains highly doubtful that many poor people from East London will make their home on the athletes’ village once it’s turned into flats and houses.
And yet – Consider another picture for a moment. We did not just have a glitzy, escapist and hideously expensive Opening Ceremony we actually saw a celebration of dynamic British multiculturalism, the Empire Windrush, dynamic popular culture and the National Health Service rather than the awesome jingoistic power of previous opening ceremonies. Let’s not forget amidst the gold medals that Danny Boyle’s extravaganza was dismissed as ‘left wing multicultural’ propaganda by some Conservative MP’s and right wing British newspapers. Then let’s think about some of the faces of the games – Yes we’ve had show-jumpers in top-hats but the real folk heroes of the London Olympics have been a dual-heritage heptathlete – Jessica Ennis, Moh Farah – a British-Muslim long distance runner whose family migrated to the UK to seek sanctuary from the vicious violence of Somalia and Nicola Adams – a working class woman boxer from Leeds. None members of the Eton brigade. All three exemplars of another, altogether more dynamic, fluid, open and progressive Britain. Ennis, Farah and Adams are ‘third space’ 21st century Britain. More than the campaigning comrades of the Left they subvert the elitism of the rowers, sailors and show-jumpers. Theirs is the UK of the 21st century. Under the radar and against the backdrop of increasingly draconian social, educational and economic policies in the UK the faces of London 2012 have been ‘our’ faces – not a rower or a sailor but Ennis, Farah and Adams. As they articulate their stories they symbolize the subversive possibility of the multiculturalism that David Cameron proclaims ‘failed’.
And yet as we saw three Jamaican flags fluttering over the Olympic stadium after the 200 metres a world beyond ‘bread and circuses’ was hinted at. Now I’m no naive romantic but I do suggest that London 2012 just possibly might point us to a world that is beyond the control of the ruling elite….What do you think?