The Olympics changed what it means to be a winner

The Games are not just about revelling in sporting prowess - they offer the hosts a chance to reboot their city and country and remake their sense of identity.

Mo Farah wins in London.
Mo Farah wins in London. Photo: Getty

In the seconds before the start of the Olympic 10,000 metres final on Saturday 4 August, Mo Farah, who had come to London from Somalia as a young boy, bounced expectantly on his thin, wiry legs, his expression open and eager. Some athletes look coldly invincible before they perform; Farah looked all too human, vulnerable as well as excited. Sporting expectation alone would have been hard enough for him. But this was a much broader kind of pressure.

Farah’s victory provided some of the most intense drama of the Games – the intensity that follows when real excitement is compounded by deep anxiety. Jessica Ennis, the poster girl of the Games, was so far ahead of her competitors by the time of the final event in the heptathlon, the 800 metres, on Saturday evening that she seemed certain to win gold. Her victory was secured by glorious increments rather than one fantastic race. Not so Farah. He knew, as we did, that the next 25 minutes had a horribly binary complexion: there could only be disappointment or joy.
 
Farah’s performance in the 10,000 metres reflected the whole London Games in less obvious ways, too. Like London, Farah faced the challenge of great expectations. He was the bookies’ favourite to win. In the same way, Britain – for all the naysayers – was expected to host a successful Games. It is a rich, stable and tolerant country and London is undeniably one of the world’s pre-eminent cities. If we are honest, it ought to be able to host a good sports tournament, especially given the £9bn Olympic price tag and the way that London has bent over backwards to tolerate IOC regulations.
 
Yes, coldly calculating, London should be able to stage a great Games, just as Farah was the favourite to win the 10,000 metres. But somehow that only exacerbated the tension. It was hard, watching the race, not to imagine all the ways in which it could go wrong. It was a “slow” race, which suited Farah because he has the kick to lose the field in the final lap. But the slower pace also made it a congested, niggly race, and he received many bangs from stray elbows and knees. He could end up fatally “boxed” by the pack of runners around him, or, worst of all, he could trip – the disastrous image I couldn’t banish from my mind.
 
We had all imagined similarly disastrous scenarios for the whole Games. The weather could ruin the party; London’s already bulging transport network could buckle under the strain; medals might be scarce and optimism might fade; the Olympics might present a Britain lacking self-confidence and drifting away from world significance.
 
As the 10,000 metres final heated up, Farah ran more smoothly than ever, looking as though the pace was taking less out of him than his rivals, his eyes revealing a glint of joy and self-belief beneath the concentration. The last few laps were one of the most moving experiences I’ve had watching sport. It became clear that no one could stretch out the race beyond his comfort zone, no one was fast enough to shake him off. When he crossed the line first, blowing a kiss to the crowd, we knew it for certain: London had a triumph on its hands.
 
Farah’s victory brought to life what we had hoped these Olympics would be about. “I came as a young boy from Somalia, but this is my home – this is where I grew up,” he explained after the race.
 

I

 
So what do the Olympics tell us about modern Britain? Do they show the way we view ourselves, the way we think about success, and what we expect of the future?
 
The problem is that the Games tell us most about what we tell ourselves about ourselves. The subtlest element of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was the way he made a new vision of Britishness seem so familiar. It purported to be progressive, but with a reassuringly sepia tint. Where most opening ceremonies are ponderous, boring and predictable, London’s was a riot of fun and mischief. Boyle’s central narrative was necessarily simplistic – yet it provided a thread on which he could hang dozens of expressions of Britishness. Just about everyone got to watch something personally touching, whether it was the celebration of the National Health Service or a scene from a rural cricket match. By the same logic, there was something to irritate almost everyone, too.
 
There were a few dissenters who complained that it was propaganda for a left-liberal view of Englishness. “I feel like I’ve just watched a £27 million party political broadcast for the Labour Party,” tweeted the conservative journalist Toby Young. But most observers did not interpret the opening ceremony through a political lens. Perhaps that was part of its skill. The most seductive art persuades without you realising you are being persuaded.
 
Above all, Boyle’s vision of Britishness suggested mature self-confidence, a country too witty and well adjusted to need grandiose statements. “We aren’t China; we aren’t America,” it announced; “we can’t be and we don’t want to be.”
 
At times, that spirit, which captured the mood of the nation so well, went missing once the competitive programme began. Invariably the home country focuses on its athletes – but surely not to the extent of ignoring the rest of the field. Sometimes the BBC and newspaper coverage suffered from trying to turn every Olympic contest into a tribal battle between Team GB and the rest of the world. The Games have been most un-British, and most unattractive, when they have been most jingoistic.
 

II

 
These Games have shown how the image of “a sporting champion” has changed. Twenty-five years ago, in line with the worst strands of Thatcherism, the image of being a winner was aggressive individualism. It was assumed that John McEnroe-style outbursts would become the norm, because “nice guys finish last”. Not so long ago, a leading sportswriter chastised Colin Jackson for congratulating his friend and rival Mark McCoy for winning a gold medal.
 
That is absurd. These Games have proved that sportsmen do not gain any competitive advantage by losing their dignity or forgetting their friendships. Usain Bolt talks about Yohan Blake, his fellow Jamaican who won a silver medal behind Bolt in the 100 metres, like a younger brother, thanking him for pushing him hard. Farah was thrilled that his training partner, the American Galen Rupp, won silver. As we have learned from the rivalry of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the greatest rivalries are underpinned by respect.
 
The courteous respectfulness of the British athletes – whether it is the rowers at Eton Dorney, the sailors in Weymouth or the athletes in the Olympic Stadium – has been one of the inspiring features of these Games. Moments after his own triumph on Centre Court, Andy Murray described what he had felt watching Farah’s win. “I do repetitions in my training,” he said, “and when I’m completely fresh, I can run [a lap] in about 57 seconds. His last lap was 53 seconds. It’s just unbelievable fitness.”
 
The way we describe sporting success reveals new misinterpretations. “Talent” has often been used as a dirty word, replaced by nouns with a clear moral dimension – guts, determination, sacrifice. The message is clear: medals should be earned by an effort of willpower, preferably 
a triumph over adversity. This subjugation of innate ability reached its apotheosis in the baffling backlash against Michael Phelps. The phenomenal American swimmer collected the 22nd Olympic medal of his career, making him the most decorated Olympian ever. Inevitably, the debate followed: was Phelps the greatest Olym­pian of all time?
 
Many pundits invoked the bizarre logic that Phelps’s physical talents give him an unfair advantage (his double-jointed ankle bones and huge feet create a “flipper” effect, it is said). Tyler Clary, his own team-mate, expressed a common view in a sharp phrase: “The fact that he doesn’t have to work as hard to get that done, it’s a real shame.”
 
Revealingly, the comment was interpreted as a shocking insult (Clary quickly apologised). For me, as an ex-professional sportsman, I think the idea of being a 22-time Olympic medallist without training that hard sounds pretty cool.
 
But increasingly only those skills earned the hard way qualify in measurement of achievement. And so, innate physical advantages must be held against sportsmen who achieve greatness. What a tangled way to think about success. Must the Indian cricketer Sachin Tendul­kar lose credit for having exceptional reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination? Sportsmen once hoped to appear effortless. Now they must follow a different ideal. If it isn’t about effort – about blood and guts, sweat and tears – then success doesn’t really count. However absurd, this is how we are told to view success, in sport and in life.
 
Yet the natural human instinct – what viewers feel before they are told what to think – is to thrill to raw talent whenever we see it. Usain Bolt cheerfully admits that Yohan Blake trains much harder than he does. “But I have a talent,” Bolt adds truthfully. And it is his talent that is so wonderful. He is one of the world’s most popular sportsmen because he has not been dulled by the platitudes of professionalism. He doesn’t pretend that it is torturously difficult being Usain Bolt. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, in the 100 metres final, he stopped trying at 70 metres. In London, he sprinted almost for the full 100 metres. But he has never lost his boyish incredulity at his own brilliance. Nor have we.
 
This narrative of just deserts has been overlaid with the story of “home-field advantage”. (Team GB has followed the usual trend of host nations by experiencing a bounce in performance.) At times during these Games, interviewing athletes became less about discovering things by talking to the participants and more a device for celebrating the crowd (and, by extension, the viewer). Hence the standard post-triumph interview went something like this: “How many seconds/inches/points did the home crowd give you as an advantage?”
 
What are the athletes supposed to say? “The crowd gave me an advantage of precisely 0.02 per cent”? But the testimony of athletes, for all their good intentions, cannot be trusted as revealed truth. Professional sportsmen intuitively understand how hard it is to resist “the media line” that has been decided on their behalf in advance. All athletes have to do in most interviews is acquiesce; usually the answers are built into the questions. It would be an unusually brave, perhaps reckless, British Olympian who denied that he or she was “inspired” by the crowd.
 
It would have been much more powerful if the athletes this year had been given the opportunity to thank the crowd – and the nation – unprompted.
 

III

 
For all the success of the London Olympics, one cannot deny that there have been unresolved tensions. The first is the underlying tension between London and the rest of the United Kingdom. No equivalent capital city so disproportionately dominates a nation. That London has shone so brightly may be good for Britain’s self-esteem; but will it reinforce the sense that London is almost another country, an isolated canton that houses the anglophone world’s financial and creative elite? “This is America up here in the Bronx,” Tom Wolfe once wrote. “Manhattan’s an offshore boutique!” Would the Games show London drifting away from the UK in the same way? For that reason, the success of the torch relay across the country was vitally important. No one knew if it would catch the collective imagination. The answer, we learned, was that these would be London’s Games, but not solely London’s Games.
 
And while the political parties jostle to claim the credit, an uncomfortable logic is left under-explored. Team GB could not have won many of its medals without the support of the state. Only a few sports can nurture elite athletes (and their coaches, equipment and nutritionists) in a free market; most require handouts from the taxpayer.
 
What of the Olympic legacy? Now that the 2012 Games have succeeded, the focus turns to whether the feeling can last. It is remarkable that, only a year ago, during the riots, London suffered such a severe and self-induced blow. Arguing that a sports tournament could heal the scars from then sounds quixotic, to say the least. The Olympics, however, is no longer really a sports tournament. Sport provides the surface and the pretext; the real point is the opportunity to reboot a city, perhaps even a country.
 
Olympics sceptics once used that fact as a criticism: look how detached the Games have become from sport, they complained. Yet if the Olympics aren’t about sport, the logic follows that Britain must have succeeded at something much more important. Perhaps we can’t yet be sure exactly what that is. But the prospect of finding out is thrilling. 
 
Ed Smith is a columnist for the New Statesman. His latest book is “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters (Bloomsbury, £16.99)