So the Games are finished, the athletes are going home and London is waking up with an almighty hangover.
So too, it seems, are Britain’s newspapers. Monday morning saw, as Roy Greenslade reports, an orgy of euphoric front page ssplattered with fireworks, exclamation marks and declarations of national brilliance. And on Tuesday, splashes on how much other countries enjoyed the Olympics and rather plodding articles about foreign athletes leaving town. “Thanks very much” and a trip to Heathrow are hardly front page stuff after a football match.
This is a hard post for me to write because – I’ll come clean here – I absolutely bloody loved the Olympics. I caught the fever bad. Barely a day went by when I wasn’t weeping over another hard-won gold medal or proclaiming national pride on Twitter (naturally, I was British after Mo Farah’s win and Caribbean whenever Usain Bolt ran).
But the thing is, I wasn’t writing for a national newspaper. Yet my exclamations of joy and patriotism, however opportunistic, were barely any different from those who were. Much as I loved having two weeks of good news, something about the unbridled patriotic glee in the British press and TV made me uncomfortable.
We had the prerequisite British grumbling and cynicism right up until the night before the Games kicked off. But Danny Boyle’s glorious opening ceremony left in its wake a kind of collective amnesia. For the next fortnight, the Olympics were seen as nothing but a sublime display of benign national strength.
I saw TV journalists comforting rather than interviewing athletes and people like Piers Morgan proclaiming, without much backlash, that we should have an Empire again.
There were lovely yet laughably optimistic comment pieces like this one, about the impact of our female Olympians on body image. And the endless lauding of the – yes, brilliant – “Games makers” volunteers as heroes reeked of Big Society propaganda.
Cynics on both the left and the right fell silent, love-drunk on the flattery of the rest of the world. Gone were the complaints of over-commercialisation, of the Orwellian power of the big brand sponsors. Quiet were the debates on the USA’s problematic innuendos about the “unbelievable” Chinese female swimmer, Ye Shiwen. And only now are we beginning to hear critics on the left question the legacy of the Olympics.
However wonderful the Olympics were, it’s worrying when even the broadsheet press and the BBC so easily forgets its role as an independent observer.
One of our wonderful bloggers at Pulse recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek post titled ‘Imperialism in a leotard’: “He almost choked on his Olympic-branded Coca-Cola when I told him that I hadn’t watched any of it and I thought the Games were like a war without the shooting.”
Melodramatic as it may sound, it all reminds me of the debate that arose from the World Wars: is it patriotic to toe the government line and print cheering propaganda of military success, or does true patriotism lie in exposing the truths about pointless wars and awful military conditions?
If there’s a fine line between sport and war, let’s not forget, as Greenslade writes, that a patriotic press is “a double-edged coin”.
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