Anarchy has entered the Olympic Park, and I applaud it loudly. This time, it wasn’t the fleeting appearance of the Sex Pistols that flickered subversion. It was eight badminton players, losing deliberately.
Four female doubles teams from China, Indonesia and South Korea have been disqualified and charged by the Badminton World Federation with trying to throw their matches and for “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”. A quirk of the draw system meant that winning their group would mean meeting the toughest of opponents in the quarter-finals. Winning would mean losing. So they played like depressed blancmanges.
How I laughed. I laugh at the pomposity of this ruling. (Abusive? Really?) I laugh at the frothing commentators. I laugh at the worldwide condemnation (even the Chinese government smeared opprobrium on their own players). And, most of all, I laugh at the scenes of shuttlecocks limping towards the net before falling flaccidly at their feet.
It is funny because it exposes the Olympics propaganda, the frenzied state of medal fetishism, the gong charts, the status anxiety if “we” “lose”, the photos of athletes so hungry for metal they are pictured biting into the gold. We lust after those disks like Augustus Gloop with a golden ticket.
Winning is everything. It means, so the rhetoric rages, personal fulfillment, national pride, and the incontrovertible knowledge that you are the best. It is also the first step towards winning again: fat riches from promotional deals. Mass adulation. And in this country, you win yet again: appearing in the Honours List. We’ve made the stakes this high and then, in shock, condemn those who tactically fiddle the system to grab gold?
The same disgust was shown towards Jimmy Carr and the slew of recent tax avoiders, because even though neither activity is illegal, it rebels against the “spirit” of the system. But the spirit of the tax system is human goodness: an attempt to look after everyone. The spirit of the Olympics is rather cold and rather brutal: do or die.
Thus, the sparkling vivacity of sport is reduced to ego: a desperate scramble among players to be the best, and a gloating jingoism among nations to prove “they” are the best. This is hollow. This doesn’t enrich. As Harvard’s Tal Ben-Shahar writes in his best-selling book “Happier”: “Society rewards results not processes. Once we attain our goal we mistake the relief that we feel for happiness.”
At these Games, as in every inch of wider society, we reward those who are already winners, and kick those who slip. Inequality isn’t simply a static gulf, but a speeding spiral. The more you win, the more you win – and vice versa.
Who is this good for? Of course I commend the rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, who secured Britain’s first gold medal today and Bradley Wiggins for his achievement. We cannot ignore, however, how unhealthy the medal culture is for many of the players. One need only regard the self-flagellation of British judo competitor Euan Burton on Tuesday night to see the damage it exacts.
After faltering in the second round, a BBC reporter asked him: “All that hard work, all that graft [and it] ended like that - can you take any positives from this experience at all?” To which Burton replied, breaking down into tears, “No, no, none whatsoever. I feel I’ve let myself down. I feel I’ve let my coaches down, everyone I’ve ever trained with down. I’ve let my mum and dad and my brother down.” Such pathos is inevitable in our warped framing of success.
But this is not healthy for us either. The Olympics may inspire spectators but what are they aspiring to: a culture that prizes the elite of the elite while spitting out even the world’s fourth best?
Boris Johnson captured this precisely: “The Games won’t be remotely inclusive – not on the track. They will be ruthlessly and dazzlingly elitist.” His relish revealed the distasteful truth: the Olympics is a Tory utopia. Winners strike gold. All must kneel.
But unlike wealth, this trickles down and forms a single message: compete, compete, compete. It wasn’t just the physical education teacher calling me a “big girl’s blouse” that put me off sport at school. It was the insistence on competition that siphoned off the joy. I wanted to play; they told me to win. No wonder low levels of physical activity have become a worldwide “pandemic”, according to Bill Kohl, from the University of Texas School of Public Health. “Most people realise they will never be Usain Bolt,” he wrote in the Lancet last month.
And so, the legacy London 2012 must strive for should be more ambitious than the deft re-deployment of buildings. It should be one that sees kids taking up sport simply for health and pleasure; that sees the disabled empowered and embraced, and that sees Britain supporting and loving life’s “losers”.
Unless we dismantle the gold rush culture that produced this badminton farce, George Eliot will remain as right about our inability to savour everyday happiness as she was in the 19th century: “The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand.”
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