The Last Word: Beware the Great Big Olympics Lie

No one seems to have a problem with the docility and hysteria

Now I can't be too long over this, because I have to go and shoot Bambi in a minute. But I am so unnerved by the past fortnight that I must risk affronting friends, family and colleagues by identifying a slick of dishonesty upon the great tide of gladness sweeping through these islands.

It would be churlish to deny that the Olympics, overall, have been a gratifying triumph. I can even accept that the prodigious expense of the stage has been vindicated by priceless inspiration from the performers. How delightful to see so many children so enthused. Perhaps some will even pursue a holiday fad rather longer than did those Australian youngsters – judging from their returns this summer – who were presumed "legatees" of Sydney 2000.

No event on this scale can register top marks across all indices. So it would be silly to waste too much vexation on, say, the monstrous priapic deformities somehow chosen as logo and mascots. Or the ghastly branding infecting daily vernacular, to the point where perfectly sensible people routinely immolate their dignity by talking about "Team GB" or "Games Makers".

Society showed ample vigilance, moreover, about the most obviously sinister challenges from the Games. Plenty were angered, for instance, that venues should be "proud only to take Visa". Or that the private sector be given a bet-to-nothing, as when a security firm trousered a huge contract, screwed up, and could rely on the army to make good the risked shortfall. In turn, I'm sure, they feel disquiet that the Olympics made it acceptable for British police to wander through crowds toting sub-machine guns.

No one, however, seems to have a problem with the docility and hysteria uniting millions of ordinary people in a Great Big Lie. For their obedient infatuation with the Games, at the behest of the mass media, has become a chilling exercise in the fragility of democracy.

Here is the bald truth suppressed at the heart of our present euphoria. In most cases you could stage exactly the same events as "world championships", last year or next, and hardly anyone would cross the road to watch. Very few, in fact, would bother to shift a thumb on the television remote. Jessica Ennis herself completed her Olympics warm-up before 300 paying customers.

Now clearly the Games mean more than a world championship to many of the participants themselves, albeit not in mainstream sports such as football or tennis. And that warrants respect. But only up to a point. Because it's blatantly dishonest to dismiss all these people as nobodies one day, and acclaim them as "icons" the next; to exalt, overnight, minority pastimes you have long considered dull or ludicrous; to deny that many of them, contested by so few people, must almost certainly set the Olympic bar pretty low.

Which is presumably why so much Lottery revenue was given to sports with a financially intimidating infrastructure. Sure enough, one of our rowing gold medallists had never sat in a boat until picked out by a Lottery-funded scheme barely four years ago. I certainly wouldn't disparage her endeavours or achievements since.

She is, demonstrably, extremely talented – and, like almost all the athletes I encountered at Eton Dorney, an impressive role model for young compatriots. Certainly, if the world is deceived that all Britons are as accomplished and engaging as Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger, then the flattery contrived by these Games will have been worth every penny.

So I would hardly equate the syndrome with the Nuremberg rallies. What's the harm, after all, in people getting a little overexcited about something as wholesome as sport, of any kind? Over the last 14 days, we have duly come to respect the dedication required by champions of any discipline; and found their emotions agreeably infectious. But their crass apotheosis, by a free press that would have disgraced Pravda under Brezhnev, frightens the life out of me.

Because it shows how much judgement we are prepared to suspend, to feel part of the show. We see the state broadcaster devote more than half a bulletin to "another silver medal for Team GB", before a desultory look at carnage in the world's most ancient cities. And the next morning we get on the train and boast how we've got tickets to "the" beach volleyball, or ask if you caught "the" handball last night.

It's what Guy Debord called "the society of the spectacle" – the decline from being, to having, to appearing. And we are so enslaved to the illusion that you have to wonder whether people would be equally receptive to less innocuous agendas. As it is, flag-waving slobs merely wobble through their schedule of bread (or Big Macs) and circuses, wearing "Team GB" merchandise that counsels: "Better Never Stops".

Will we resist the same intellectual degradation, if it ever proposes political sickness rather than physical health? Many Britons are sticking their chests out, exulting in the rediscovery of national pride. But you have to pray that any new vanity will never supplant the wry, seasoned perspectives so celebrated in the ceremony that opened the whole spectacle. Because if better never stops, neither does worse.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor