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Our Man in England: The Five Ring Circus

- August 2, 2012

Readers of The Monkey Cage may have noticed in the last few days a conspicuous lack of coverage of the Olympics on our blog. While for some of you this may have been greatly appreciated, others may have been left wondering if this was appropriate behavior for one of the seven most powerful blogs in the world. For those of you in the latter camp, fear not! We have heard your concerns, and we have rectified the situation. We now have an official Monkey Cage dispatcher from the 2012 London Olympics, Alastair Ruffles. As the Olympics is always sort of political, we have chosen as our correspondent someone who is sort of a political scientist (defined as having been a classmate of mine in a masters program in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham in the mid 1990s, but having subsequently gone on to a career in IT, albeit in the public sector.) Al also has the dual advantages of being British and willing to share a few observations with us. We hope you enjoy them. Here is his first post:


So the London 2012 Olympics (or to give them their official title, the Games of the XXX Olympiad, sponsored by McDonalds, Visa, Acer, Dow Chemical Corporation et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) are now well under way.

If you happen to actually live in Britain, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Games have already been going on for some years.  Pretty much from the day that the announcement of the host city was made in 2005, the impending festivities have never been far from the national consciousness.

Being British, however, we could not look forward to this sporting and cultural extravaganza with unabashed relish and joy.  Oh no.  As a nation, we thrive on parallel feelings of stoic pride and nagging paranoia.  Occasionally we lurch into flag waving jingoism, particularly where the rest of Europe is concerned, and yet sometimes we remember that we’re not actually a superpower anymore and that no-one really cares what we think or do.  These feelings have been played out in microcosm during the build up to the Olympics.

Take the official mascots of the Olympic and Paralympic games, Wenlock and Mandeville.  Supposedly representing two drops of steel from the girders of the Olympic Stadium, they were branded by one journalist (admittedly Canadian) as “a drunken one-night stand between a Teletubby and a Dalek.”  However, it should be noted that criticising Olympic mascots has become a sport in itself, so perhaps we shouldn’t take this one to heart.

More complicated (and more costly) is the story of the Olympic Stadium in East London.  The original plan was to build an 80,000 seat stadium for the Games, which could then be converted in to a 25,000 seat permanent venue.  But what about the legacy, said the critics.  The legacy is that there would be precious little left of a £450m ($1.5bn – it is still 3+ dollars to the GBP, isn’t it?)  publicly funded stadium.  That didn’t sound right.  An Olympic Park Legacy Committee was created to find an answer.  The answer they chose was ‘fudge’, handing the stadium to one of London’s Premier League soccer clubs, only for this to be challenged in the High Court and the decision over-turned.  At present we’re back to the original plan, so if you’re in the market for 55,000 slightly used plastic seats, I’d keep my eye on eBay in September.

The Olympic flame arrived in Britain on May 18, 2012.  Seventy days and 8,000 miles later it arrived at the Olympic Stadium.  We really must do something about these roads.  In between, the torch was carried by 8,000 people, consisting mainly of ex-Olympians, low-grade reality TV ‘celebrities’ and the German marketing managers of the official sponsors.  Despite the wettest Spring and early Summer on record, crowds turned out everywhere to see the Coca-Cola trucks, police outriders, local TV crews, security staff and, if they were lucky, some Joe in a tracksuit carrying the torch.

The biggest cause for concern in the build up to the Games has undoubtedly been the Opening Ceremony.  Previous ceremonies have usually followed a certain pattern:  some national costume, a purpose-composed piece of music that you’ll be sick of by the end of the third day, and the history of the people told through the format of interpretive dance.  Then you release the doves and light the flame (note to South Korea – not necessarily at the same time) and the job is done.  That was up until Beijing 2008.  In Beijing the Opening Ceremony lasted 4 hours, cost an estimated $100m, and involved over 15,000 performers.  And this was just a warm up for the closing ceremony.

Britain gulped hard.  How can we compare with that, particularly in the grip of the greatest economic slump since the 1920’s?  Some recalled the last time the Olympics were held in Britain in 1948.  The so-called ‘Austerity Games’ were run on a shoestring budget at a time when food rationing was still in place and the damage from the Second World War was still evident.  On that occasion the Opening Ceremony consisted of Prime Minister Clement Attlee leading a sing-along around a piano, while King George VI entertained a packed Empire Stadium by making balloon animals on the back of a flat bed truck.

But no, damn it, we can’t look cheap in front of the world’s media and satirists.  So £27m was set aside for the ceremony, and Oscar winning director Danny Boyle was handed the keys to the cookie jar.  This raised the ire of certain sections of the media.  Wasn’t he the chap who had sprung to fame with his gritty depiction of drug culture in ‘Trainspotting’?  Had he not made some point or other about human poverty and inequality in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’?  Is Leni Riefenstahl not available?

There are better writers than me that can give you a blow-by-blow account of what we actually got on Friday night, but from my point of view it was bombastic, chaotic and loud.  These aren’t necessarily bad qualities.  The story was told of a pastoral land ripped apart by the Industrial Revolution, riven by conflict, yet somehow now brought together by digital communication, music and sport.  And, of course, interpretive dance.  The Queen jumped out of an aeroplane, demonstrating a sense of humour rarely seen in the previous 60 years of her reign, Tim Berners-Lee received a rock star ovation for inventing the world wide web, and Paul McCartney sang ‘Hey Jude’ out of tune.  Again.

Some of the more vocal members of the Conservative Party, and their attack dogs in the right-wing press, most notably in the Daily Mail (which, it should be pointed out, once led with the headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’ during the short lived rise of fascism in Britain in the 1930’s) have complained that Danny Boyle’s vision of a multicultural nation, brought together in a spirit of celebration and underpinned by a free National Health Service, was tantamount to a hymn of praise to a socialist dream world.  He even inflicted the Sex Pistols on to the Queen’s delicate ears.  To the Tower with him!

Elsewhere the praise for the Ceremony has been near universal.  The message rings out loud and clear.  “We are Great Britain, and we haven’t embarrassed ourselves. Yet!”