A golden hour laden with significance for Britain

Published in the London Evening Standard (6th August, 2012)

Wow! What an exhausting weekend it has been for us armchair Olympians, all those hours of cheers and tears watching that wondrous medley of golden triumphs. We had to stay focused amid all those incredible scenes of sporting history, the record books torn up as the medals rained down.

For all the success of the sailors, cyclists and rowers, the most indelible memories were those tense moments on the track as three determined individuals gave British athletics its finest hour. This was a moment of national ecstasy to enter the annals of sport alongside Bobby Moore lifting the 1966 World Cup and Jonny Wilkinson’s nerve-shredding drop goal in Sydney nine years ago.

Sometimes, there is no need to do more than revel in the moment, to take vicarious pleasure in the success of supremely talented athletes rather than trying to overburden their performances with wider interpretations. But like it or not, sport always has wider significance — one reason it is taken so seriously.

This is especially true when confronting racial boundaries. Think of Jesse Owens destroying Nazi theories of supremacy, Basil D’Oliveira forcing apartheid South Africa to cancel an England cricket tour and France’s multiracial football team giving a riposte to the  racists by winning the 1998 World Cup.

In a similar way, those 60 breathtaking minutes on Saturday might become a significant moment for Britain. For as so often in the past, the skill and successes of sporting heroes symbolise something far more profound than just the longest jump or fastest run.

In our hearts, we know these glorious games are a 16-day respite from dire economic reality, which is perhaps why we have surrendered to them with such abandon. It is clear promises of an economic boost were bogus, so the need to enjoy the event is all the more important, like an expensive holiday bought on a maxed-out credit card.

Their success seems assured barring last-minute disasters. As one Canadian newspaper columnist pointed out, not only have we pulled off the Olympics but our crime rates are the lowest in decades, our public transport works well, our universities are world-beaters and our battered economy is better than most European rivals. “They’ve never had it so good,” he proclaimed.

This may be pushing it, but certainly Britain has discovered that far from being broken or bog-standard, the country remains world-class. Almost to our surprise, we have cause to feel good about ourselves and permission to feel patriotic. Following on from the Jubilee, the flag has been reclaimed from the hate-fuelled fascist fringe.

Gratifyingly, this pride is in the country we are today, not the country we once were. We have shrugged off hang-ups over whether we are ancient or modern; instead, Britain is coming to terms with itself as a complex nation with multiple identities and mashed-up culture. With one in eight people here foreign-born, Norman Tebbit’s cricket test seems as archaic as the man himself.

Never was our new-look nation more apparent than in those extraordinary scenes in the Olympic stadium. No casting agent could have better chosen three people to represent modern Britain: a mixed-race heptathlete with a British mother and Jamaican father; a ginger-haired long jumper from Milton Keynes, and a Somalian refugee.

The significance of Mo Farah is hard to overstate. Somalians suffer many of the worst barbs against immigrants, despite having fought alongside Nelson in the battle of Trafalgar and being one of the older migrant communities. Frequently demonised as crooks and benefit scroungers in red-top newspapers, they have the lowest employment rate among foreign-born groups.

Now here is a success story showing the real face of his community: a friendly, family man and devout Muslim whose fierce determination overcame huge hurdles on his long journey to the Olympic podium. Asked afterwards if he would rather run for Somalia, he gave a sharp put-down: “Look mate, this is my country.”

Indeed it is. The stars of that astonishing hour define precisely what kind of country it is these days — just as the carnival atmosphere shows that for all the cynicism too often on display this is a nation with a sense of fun, openness and communal spirit. It is, dare I say, the embodiment of the much-maligned “big society”.

Much of this is down to the 70,000 volunteers, enjoying themselves as much as the competitors. Many are from ethnic minorities, which perhaps reflects that they are more likely than white Britons to identify with their nation, as a survey discovered last month. “I felt it was my chance to give something back, to extend the welcome that I’d had to other people,” one Ugandan-born usher told a Sunday newspaper.

Could the legacy of these Olympics be Britain reciprocating such affection towards its immigrant communities, feeling comfortable with itself as a multicultural society? Integration is a two-way process, after all — and prejudice remains all too palpable. The Games began, remember, with a Tory MP tweeting about the “multicultural crap” of the opening ceremony.

These athletes are the visible tip of the immigrant iceberg. Just as Team GB benefits from Britain’s openness to migration, so does the nation. The same forces that drive these athletes to victory lie behind successes in many other areas, from arts and business to medicine and science. They even explain the host city’s success, saved from decades of decline by an influx of newcomers.

This year has seen the British National Party thrashed in local elections and ousted from council power bases. Now the likes of Farah and Ennis provide powerful demonstration of how much immigrant communities enrich our nation. There is the whiff of hypocrisy over those who cheer on these medalists then demand tougher controls to stop their successors. Or do you just think they are coming over here to steal our gold medals?

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