Why the Olympics inspire us

Continuing our "What makes us human?" series.

Usain Bolt celebrates with fans after setting a world record for the 4x100m
Usain Bolt celebrates with fans after setting a world record for the 4x100m in August 2012. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

For me, last summer’s Olympic celebrations served as a valuable reminder of what it means to be truly human.

From the moment the Olympic flame touched down on these islands, to extraordinary and (let us admit it) quite unexpected levels of enthusiasm, it became impossible even to brush up against those thousands of Olympic volunteers without being struck by the innate politeness, consideration, efficiency and effectiveness of swaths of our own countrymen and women.

The superbly mounted spectacle of the London Games displayed every human quality at its most vivid – triumph and disaster met and overcome. This despite the cynicism of many in the media who had been prophesying a fiasco from the day we were first awarded the Games in July 2005.

As I walked around London last summer, I wondered whether this could possibly be the same nation that has for so long been reflected or refracted, day in and day out, in our sensation-seeking, voyeuristic, celebrityobsessed newspapers – to the degree that, as the columnist Simon Jenkins recently put it, the media appear to have “gone collectively tabloid”.

This had become a world in which words get distorted and mangled to a point at which they lose all meaning – words such as “fair”, “respect”, “kindness”, “sacrifice” and “value”. The very words which, to my mind, sum up what it means to be truly human.

Yet those were also words which, over the years, seemed to have lost all value and meaning in much of the media discourse in this country, to be replaced by a seemingly insatiable interest in the misfortunes of others.

I found myself increasingly angry at the way in which, for 20 years and more, and without any apparent sense of irony at the extent of their own mendacity, sections of the media have been exploiting the rest of society; angry at the predatory manner in which they’ve pounced on our frailties, exploited our weaknesses, preyed on our fears, fanned our petty jealousies and trumpeted our inadequacies, all in the guise of “freedom of expression”.

This is a world in which, once sufficient money is involved, shame and embarrassment appear to have ceased to be any kind of brake on appalling behaviour. Possibly inevitably, our shared sense of humanity has, daily, been diminished.

Yet against that background, did the performance of a single British Olympian or Paralympian in any way shame or embarrass anybody? I would be very surprised if that were the case.

The great Irish-American philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell, in the seminal work The Hero’s Journey, refers to what he calls the Hero/Servant – a person who has given his or her life to something bigger than themselves. It is Campbell’s belief that there’s an element of this in all of us, but that it takes courage, and the right environment, at the right moment, to bring that instinct out in us. Again, I would contend that this is part of the essence of what makes us human.

This figure, the Hero/Servant, turns up in the myths, stories and legends of just about every civilisation since the beginning of recorded time. For me, Eric Liddell, one of the protagonists in Chariots of Fire, represents the epitome of that concept. It’s my belief that the “motto” borrowed by Pierre de Coubertin to express his Olympic ideal – that is to say Faster, Higher, Stronger –may no longer be fit for purpose in the 21st century; at least, not without the imaginative addition of a commitment to “Better”.            

And “better” should not be confused with “bigger or grander”, although you could be forgiven for believing that these two concepts had somehow morphed into one. The truth is, de Coubertin founded a movement into which he injected a set of ideals that we as human beings have aspired to for at least two and a half thousand years.

One way and another, we know we still have to find the key to what best constitutes the “flowering of our humanity” in this new and increasingly difficult century; and to fulfil that purpose we need to be able to utilise every scrap of talent and imagination we can bring to bear. The Olympic movement, exemplified so brilliantly by the spectacle of London 2012, may well represent one of the most powerful instruments we have to enable that “flowering of humanity” to take place.

David Puttnam is a Labour peer and a former film producer This article is the fourth in a series, published in association with BBC Radio 2 and the Jeremy Vine show