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Now we’re the sporting top dogs, please let’s not take ourselves too seriously

This year's success is doubtless going to taunt us for years to come, in the manner of 1966.

There is no bear garden in the Olympic Park. You’d think they might have had the nous to rustle one up. It could nestle between the Panasonic Full HD 3D Theatre, the Coca Cola Beatbox and the London 2012 Megastore. You don’t need much: a pit, some seating, a post, a chain to tie the bear to the post, a bear, a few rabid bulldogs to unleash on the bear. But then bear-baiting, oddly, isn’t an Olympic sport. It’s not even under consideration. There’s barely a whisper about it around Stratford, its fan base has atrophied, its glory days are over.

The Spice Girls aside, the time for unlikely comebacks is over. And to think that we were once masters of the sport, and our monarchs – instead of cheering on the long jump and the pommel horse – were its champions (Henry VIII built a pit at Whitehall; Elizabeth I overruled parliament when it tried to ban the gory entertainment on Sundays).

Obviously, this is progress, as bear-baiting was a vile, brutal pastime involving pointless animal cruelty for the amusement of bloodthirsty spectators and was prohibited in 1835. Still, we absolutely loved it.

“It was a sport very pleasant,” wrote a spectator in 1575, “to see the bear with his pink eyes leering after his enemies approach, the nimbleness and wayt of the dog to take his advantage, and the force and experience of the bear again to avoid the assaults. If he were bitten in one place, how he would pinch in another to get free, that if he were taken once, then what shift, with biting, with clawing, with roaring, tossing and tumbling, he would work to wind himself free from them. And when he was loose, to shake his ears twice or thrice with the blood and the slather about his physiognomy, was a matter of goodly relief.” What larks.

Anyone nostalgic for the biting and clawing, for the blood and the slather, can be reassured: bear-baiting lives on in the form of a reliable sporting metaphor. The dogs that were set upon the benighted bear were known as the top dog and the underdog. The top dog was trained to attack the bear’s head while the underdog went for the bear’s underbelly. The top dog had a good chance of confounding the bear and surviving. The underdog was toast. And so a commentator’s lexicon was born. The funny thing about underdogs is that you don’t often hear about their entirely predictable failure or death. We like underdogs who, against the odds, win: Robert the Bruce versus the English, the English versus the Armada, Goran Ivanisevic.

One of the most heart-twanging sights of the Games so far has been the supreme top dog Michael Phelps touring the pool with the 20- year-old South African swimmer Chad le Clos, after the youngster beat his hero in the 200m butterfly. Phelps had a paternal arm around le Clos as he steered him from crowd wave to interview to podium, the old dog teaching the new one its tricks. (Phelps quickly reclaimed top dogness, of course, beating all records for medals won and so ascending every conceivable statistical table and generally becoming The Best of All Time, Ever.)

But how we love the unexpected underdog triumph: the plucky chancer, who, emboldened by the unlikeliness of success and the presence of a far superior opponent, springs a surprise victory. We like them, because that’s what we, Britain, have been for years. Once, a long time ago, we won things – sports, wars – but now we’re reliable underdogs with the odd exception, which we celebrate with open-top bus parades and all the lunatic abandon of those unused to the sweet taste of victory.

I like this about us. We’re not natural winners. We don’t particuarly take to the notion of “positive thinking”. We bottle. We collapse. We stumble. Until now. I’m not sure when exactly but at some point during the alien course of “super Saturday”, as we nonchalantly slung another gold medal into the war chest, the doubt evaporated. As the medals kept flowing, we began to expect them. A silver started to seem a little, well, tinny. Somehow, out of sight, we’d done a Clark Kent costume change and emerged from the phone box as winners. We’d switched from underdog to top dog in what will forever uncatchily be known as “doing a Chad le Clos”.

There is some very legitimate anxiety to be felt about the reclaiming of top-dog status.

1. Will we lose our sense of humour?
2. Will we become unbearably smug?
3. What happens when we start losing again?

To answer the questions in turn:
1. The famed British humour is predicated on our rapid descent from being a nation that “ruled the waves” to a tinpot country whose capital city has a mayor who gets stuck in a harness on a zip wire. If we start winning regularly, we run the risk of taking ourselves seriously and endangering our most precious and enviable personality trait, which is pretty much the only thing that makes us attractive to more aesthetically blessed populations.

2. If there’s one danger greater than loss of humour, it’s accumulation of smugness. Not just smugness, self-belief. There is an overlooked beauty in lacking self-esteem. You’re less likely to be a bully. You’re less likely to be an unlikeable, arrogant arse. You’re much less likely to start a war.

3. The pessimist’s role in life is to know that when things are going extremely well, soon enough they will go extremely badly. Our gloom makes us stunningly unpopular, but at least we speak truth to power (at least this is what we tell ourselves as we cower from the steely-eyed optimists). The thing is, we can’t keep winning. In about 30 years’ time, when we’re limping home from the Olympics in a Chinese city that hasn’t even been built yet and some man-child politico is launching a public inquiry into why we only managed to win a single bronze medal in crazy golf, every front page will wonder what went so wrong in British sport after the Golden Summer of the London Games? The year 2012 will hang around our necks like the albatross of 1966, taunting us with images of faded glory. Ah well, something else to blame on Nick Clegg.


Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism