The TV camera followed the descent of the gold-nosed Boeing 747 as it came in for a touchdown at Heathrow Airport. On board the plane were 326 members of the British Olympics team, returning in triumph from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The TV commentator tempted fate by saying that she hoped that the pilot brought the aircraft down safely with a smooth landing – devoid, perhaps, of the “bumps” that the British athletes had dealt out to those of the other competing nations at the 31st. Olympiad.
No sooner had the aircraft disgorged its passengers than the latter were lining-up for the inevitable photo-calls – replete with the medals of gold, silver and bronze – and repetitious interviews focusing on future success, role-models and “dreams coming true”. Commiserations were voiced and the odd interview given with those Olympic participants who had, narrowly or otherwise, missed-out on a medal. Despite the impressive record amount of medals won by a British team, the latter were in the majority.
That evening, one press review commented on speculation that on board the plane from Rio the first class area was reserved for gold medal winners, business class for the silver and bronze medals winners, with the rest of the aircraft seats for those without a medal (no mention was made of the officials). If this was indeed the case, then this meritocratic system of seating would surely not be consistent with the oft-repeated profession of the British team that “we are all in this together”!
Even before the plane left Rio, the Olympic officials, sports commentators, newspaper headlines and even the newly-opinionated man and woman in the street, were heralding the fact that “Great Britain” was now a world super power in sports. One could forgive, amongst others, the cricket enthusiast, the football fanatic, the super rugby league follower and the followers of and players in those sports which were never given funding for Olympic Games participation for feeling a little envious or left out.
The general British response offers a stark contrast to at least one account of the performance of the Australian team at Rio 2016 (for which this writer has some interest). In an article in Australia’s The Daily Review, with the heading of “When artists win, it is worth more than just a gold medal”, the following was said:
“Who’d be an Olympic athlete, eh? After years of thankless slog, committing hour upon gruelling hour of punishing training regimes and joyless calorie-controlled diets, striving for the merest chance to fly the native flag on sport’s most venerated international stage, the braying masses back home, lolling on the sofa, sneer at anything but gold. If the public’s outrage at the Australian Olympic team’s medal haul is anything to go by (a measly 8 golds “pfft”), the land Down Under is a country of unapologetic elitists. So much for the red-hot-go, little Ausssie battler spirit; it’s not the taking part, but the winning that counts.”
The article went on to discuss and compare elitism in art with sport, saying that, “Just like sport, elitism is at the very core of what it means to be an artist and (even if we are not prepared to admit it) what we expect of artists. You need only to look at the vocabulary used to discuss the arts to see this in action. Pick up a flyer or read a season brochure and barely a sentence will pass without at least one superlative: the most acclaimed; esteemed; illustrious; renowned; celebrated; revered; extolled, and so on ad nauseam.”
The UK has an admirable history of cultural achievement, but is the nation also as diligent in its search for those artists, in all fields, “who pose the difficult questions, expose the uncomfortable truths and shake us on a deep, paradigm-altering level.” Is there now a danger that the performance of successful British participants in Rio 2016 will consign them to the elitist, celebrity level of public recognition at the expense of the battlers (the “little Brit battlers”) in local athletics clubs, school sports and minority sports that hardly, if ever, merit even a mention in sports magazine or the back pages of the daily newspapers, or to the detriment of those whose funding has been inexorably decreased?
Looking back over the happening that was the 31st. Olympiad, it is still somewhat mystifying to this writer as to why the UK team for Rio 2016 was referred to as “Great Britain”, seeing that there is no actual country of that name! Is it not true that British passports were issued to the athletes by the government of “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”? So, the nation is rightly known as the “United Kingdom”, not “Great Britain”. To officially designate the British Olympic Games team as “Great Britain” seems to ignore the reality that Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the UK. It also raises an issue about the British passport!
One reason suggested as to why Northern Ireland was excluded from formal recognition in the name of the British team was that the competitors from Northern Ireland had the choice of competing for either “Great Britain” or for the Irish Republic. This raises a further number of issues. Are British citizens in Northern Ireland to be given more choices of this nature where the Irish Republic is concerned? Will this dual choice exist and persist for all sports? Are British citizens in Northern Ireland to be given the opportunity of being dual passport holders – British and Irish (an interesting prospective dilemma given the outcome of the vote in the recent UK/EU referendum)?
Perhaps it gets nearer to the truth of the use of the appellation “Great Britain” for the Olympic Games team, to listen to several off-the-cuff comments made by TV news and event commentators. During his excellent 5000 metres win, Mo Farah was described by the event commentator as running in an “imperial” way (did he mean “imperious”?). Little time had elapsed following the conclusion of a number of gold-winning performances by British competitors before there was talk of a shed-load of royal honours, including knighthoods and dameships, being conferred on successful athletes. Given that these honours still retain recognition of the British Empire, perhaps Mo Farah’s running style was, in fact, “imperial”!
What is wrong with the name “United Kingdom”? In this writer’s view, “Team UK” is at least as imposing as “Team GB” – and more accurate and honest! Is there some truth in the view that the use of “Great” for the British team signifies a yearning by the few, if not the many, for the UK to once again be a super power in more than just sport?
The day after the close of the 31st. Olympiad, the Classic FM radio station presented a day devoted to British classical music. This writer listened to a short segment of the programme, during which time the following music was broadcast: Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Hubert Parry’s ubiquitous Jerusalem, William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, Mekel Roger’s March to Buckingham Palace), and Frederick Delius’s Walk Through Paradise Gardens. Now, it needs to be said that this segment may not have been typical of the rest of the day’s classical programming, but a “celebration of British music”?
It also seems anachronistic that the British gold medal winners at Rio 2016, after enduring “years of thankless slog, committing hour upon gruelling hour of punishing training regimes and joyless calorie-controlled diets”, are required to dutifully listen to a national anthem that has nothing to say about them as persons representing a nation, but requires them to offer their effort and skills, if not their medals, to the honour of an importunate monarch who would prefer them to be subjects rather than citizens!
Perhaps it is time that we fully realize that sport, like art, upholds and not merely panders. For, when it comes to sport, “winning is defined by more than some autocratic benchmark” (Maxim Boon, Australian composer and arts writer), like an Olympic gold medal, a five-star newspaper review, or a royal honour. Sport, like art, asks us to recognize its worth in asking just as much of us as we do of it.