Alan White's Olympics diary: Great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous

Thank goodness for Ian Thorpe, Nigerian table-tennis players and all the other Olympic wonders.

Friday 27 July

Outrage. Mitt Romney has slagged off our preparations. Clearly, there’s something in the air, because this is seen as a gaffe. How dare he come over here and say exactly the same thing our press has been saying for the last two weeks! I feel the tone has been set: this might end up being a bloody shambles, but if is, it’s our bloody shambles.

On Sky News, meanwhile, Kay Burley is talking to a former Olympic weightlifter. “So how good were you?” she asks.

I know there’s something odd going on when I begin to feel the love for Jeremy Hunt. The Minister has an unfortunate incident in which he inadvertently imperils a woman with his bell end (there really is no other way to report this). The disco remix is online in minutes. I’ve now watched this clip 763 times, and it doesn’t stop being funny.

There are under-reported things I particularly like – first, the Frank Spencer “Ooo!” he makes as the bell flies off, and second the classic English knee-jerk, embarrassment-defusing comment about everyone’s favourite bugbear, “Health and Safety”. I mean, if there’s anyone who actually should care about Health and Safety it’s presumably a man responsible for organizing a global sporting event, but anyway.

Kay Burley is talking to the crowds on Tower Bridge. She asks an 11-year-old child if he remembers Sir Paul McCartney. He doesn’t understand what she means.

A bunch of us gather at a mate’s house to watch the ceremony. “This is like a shite panto,” a friend texts. We’re pretty cynical. It’s hard to pick out the moment when the mood in the room shifts. For me, I think it’s the moment when I realize they’re forging the Olympic rings. So many thousands of words have been written on this by better writers than me – all I can say is I agree with the summation that Beijing showed its strength, Britain its soul.

Not everyone’s happy, of course. Aiden Burley MP doesn’t like the “multicultural crap”, but then when your idea of fun is hanging out with guys dressed as Nazis I suppose most public events are a bit of a letdown. He justifies it by complaining about all the rappers (i.e. Dizzee Rascal). Toby Young complains that there wasn’t enough attention paid to Churchill’s speeches, the Commonwealth or Margaret Thatcher. Later, Rick Dewsbury writes something vile and racist in the Daily Mail before chickening out (read this – really, you must).

This, of course, is just the lunatic fringe. To my mind the only really serious criticism comes from David Icke, who points out the satanic elements of what we’ve witnessed. Things get worse in this regard when I discover the Olympic Mascots are tools of the Illuminati.

Anyway, Aidan Burley must be fuming as the stadium starts to fill up with foreigners, but fortunately they’re just the athletes. At the house party I’m attending – and no doubt thousands of others, an extremely competitive alphabetical next country guessing game unfolds. “It’ll be the Gambia coming in next; just wait. Oh damn you, Gabon!”

By the end of the ceremony we’re all quite drunk, and left with more questions than answers. Who the hell are the Independent Olympic Athletes? (Answer here). Is that...Shami Chakrabarti? (It was). They dared to have the Arctic Monkeys on rather than Coldplay or someone? (They really did).

And finally…did they really let some unknowns light the flame, after all that speculation? Because if they did…well, that’s just beautiful.

 

Sat 28 July

The morning starts with a hangover and a second viewing of the Olympics ceremony. It’s twice as good second time around, though Trevor Nelson is four times as annoying.

On with the TV, and into the action. Obviously we have to watch Mark Cavendish in the road race. But this is on for hours, and nothing much happens till near the end. Right, let’s head to the rowing on the red button – Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend (no, obviously I’ve no idea who they are either, but they’re British) are neck and neck with the young pretenders of Argentina but now the champions, New Zealand, have burst past the pair of them and…

What’s this I see on Twitter? Fran Halsall’s just made the semis of the 100m butterfly and Dana Vollmer’s just set a new Olympic record!  And what’s that? Robbie Rennick’s leading the 400m freestyle? Time to flip over. Actually I’d better check on the road race just in case Cavendish has been taken out by a squirrel or something. No, he’s fine. But now I’ve missed what’s happened to Rennick. So I go online to check and OH MY GOD THERE ARE 24 LIVE CHANNELS OF THIS STUFF.

How the hell am I supposed to manage this? I’ve parked the cyling, I’ve got the swimming on the telly and China playing the Czech Republic at women’s basketball on the computer (and my God is that violent). But how do I monitor the preliminary round of the women’s -48kg judo? And sub-division 1 of the men’s gymnastic qualifiers? The Three-Day Eventing Dressage?

It’s a relief to leave the house and go to my first event: the ping pong. Note: under no circumstances should you call it that when in the arena. Serious fans and competitors get touchy.

The first impression is, bluntly, fantastic. The reason? The volunteers. They all seem genuinely happy to be there. Especially this woman. For all the cynicism – and no doubt much of it isn’t misplaced – there’s a spirit among the crowds. And it’s – well, it’s multicultural. Some guys from Thailand in ceremonial robes pose for a snap with a couple of American tourists. Some Japanese people are entranced by two British guys in weightlifting fancy dress.

The sport itself is fantastic. No doubt the crowd favourite is the Nigerian Segun Toriola – it’s not every day you see a Nigerian table-tennis player, and not only that, he has a very showboaty forehand smash.

It’s a great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous. It’s the little reminders that it’s tennis, but small. I like it when the contestants turn to their coach and give them the fist pump, like they do at Wimbledon, but because it’s table tennis, the coach is right behind them so they’re screaming in their face. And they always have to retrieve the ball themselves.

My favourite athletes, generally, are ones with names about which I can make rubbish jokes to my other half. So I’m overjoyed when Miao Miao of China enters the stadium. She remains my favourite athlete right up until the point I hear unconfirmed reports a Wong Wai is competing in the cycling.

 

Sun 29 July

Last night I noticed there was a block of empty seats at the table tennis. Strange, I thought. Turns out there’s a major story here.

The media is struggling to find out whose fault it is. Initially, we all assume it’s the sponsors’ fault, but it soon comes to pass that it’s more complicated than that, and it’s to do with allocations to foreign countries. Turns out we can’t actually blame McDonald’s or the bureaucrats that Jacques Rogge laughably described as “working class” as much as we’d like. Hopefully a solution will be found, be it volunteers, people from the community, or the army.

It all begs the question of what the sponsors are getting out of this. No one seems to have a good word to say for them – which is presumably why they get instantly blamed for the biggest scandal thus far, and they don’t even seem to get that many seats. What’s their return on investment. Worth it? I ask a mate who works in the sports industry. “Studies say so,” he says. “But it’s all smoke and mirrors. No one’s got a bloody clue, to be honest.”

Anyway, thank goodness for Ian Thorpe. Ian has been on the BBC since it kicked off, providing funny, honest and insightful opinion. There’s something incredibly soothing about his manner and voice. So we’ve just cut to the British contestant getting knocked out of another random event? Don’t worry. Ian’s here. It’ll all be alright.

Speaking of nice people, the two stories of the day are Lizzie Armitstead in the road race and Rebecca Adlington in the 400m. Armitstead wins silver after a thrilling sprint and Adlington a far-from-guaranteed bronze (apropos of nothing, one more award than Frankie Boyle won for Tramadol Nights). Both of them – as is the case, it seems, with many athletes - are charming, sweet-natured women. 

The next day, Armitstead will talk about the problems with sexism in cycling, and London’s mayor will write about the female beach volleyball players “glistening like otters” in an otherwise rather good article on the Olympics thus far. To be fair to him, it’s the sort of cheap joke we’ve all made. But as it happens, the beach volleyball is one of the most exciting events of the day, for quite different reasons: Britain pull off a thrilling victory over Canada. Who must be better at it than, say, Switzerland, at least.

After many, many hours of sport, I switch to BBC One and see Ian Thorpe is STILL there, after what I think is twenty consecutive hours of intense punditry. This man is putting in a shift. I fall asleep to the sound of his voice. “Look,” he says. “Look.” “Look.” “Go to sleep now. Ian’s looking after you.”

Check back for more updates through the week from Alan White's Olympic Diary.

 

The Olympics! Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue