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23 March 2022

The sunny national story conjured by the 2012 London Olympics has clouded over

The turbulent and toxic political decade that followed the Games has exploded any illusion of British unity.

By Jonathan Liew

Of course, we all loved the opening ceremony: its freshness and invention, its optimism and humour and downright weirdness. We all chuckled at the EastEnders parody, danced along with the NHS nurses, gasped aloud when the actual, living Queen appeared. The music was sensational, the volunteers were magnificent, and best of all the flame was lit not by some shrivelled legend of the past, but by seven teenagers who would shape Britain’s future.

Almost a decade after Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, the 2012 London Olympics remains perhaps this nation’s best attempt yet at articulating what it is: not with the blunt instruments of words or votes, but with sound and vision, steel and sweat. For those two-and-a-half weeks, as British athletes ran, cycled, fought and horse danced their way to success on a wave of pure euphoric fervour, we reimagined ourselves as a happy country, a confident and united country, perhaps even a functional and fair country: one that had shed its old fault lines between rich and poor, left and right, north and south. “A model for a new patriotism,” the Guardian suggested at the Games’ close. “An expression of a Britishness that excluded no one,” declared the Telegraph.

From a safe distance, the legacy of London 2012 feels more contested. Many of the athletes we lauded and acclaimed are now under suspicion of doping offences. The supposed regeneration of east London has enriched developers but left few tangible public benefits. A turbulent and toxic political decade has exploded our myth of national unity. Even the Games themselves now feel like a pleasant concussion, a brief amnesia, perhaps even a form of self-sportswashing in which we temporarily imagined we could triathlon away our problems.

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The real puzzle of the London Games was its fleeting alignment of two separate, in many ways contradictory national stories. The first was the vision embodied by Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, by Kenneth Branagh and Dizzee Rascal and Mo Farah, one in which tolerance and diversity and the level playing field were reclaimed as quintessentially Great British values. We dreamed ourselves post-racial, post-empire, post-class, a dream almost as simple and potent as its American equivalent: with hard work and elite coaching, you too could top the podium.

But once you analysed the Team GB medal rush, a different story revealed itself. Britain won a staggering 65 medals at the 2012 Olympics, but their distribution was revealing. Cycling, rowing, equestrianism, canoeing and sailing accounted for more than half the total. Unsurprisingly, these well-heeled pursuits were also among the sports that had secured the largest chunk of UK Sport funding. Meanwhile, traditionally working-class sports such as basketball, table tennis, boxing, judo and weightlifting were forced to struggle on much tighter budgets.

In a way, the entire edifice of British sport, from the Premier League to English cricket to the Olympics, is based on this sort of two-tier model. Shortly before the Games I went to visit the fledgling British women’s handball team as they prepared for their first ever Olympics. Although still a developing team, their participation was an unparalleled chance to grow the game in this country, and to nurture new stars. Instead, the team were living in various south London bedsits and eating baked beans because their budgets would stretch no further. After the Games, the entire handball programme had its funding cut because it was not a realistic medal hope.

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Two visions of sport and two visions of Britain. And yet over the subsequent decade only one has prevailed. British sport has largely followed the trajectory of British society, reflecting, even deepening and entrenching, existing inequalities. At last year’s Tokyo Olympics around 35 per cent of Team GB medal winners were privately educated, compared to 7 per cent of the population as a whole. According to Chris Grant of Sport England, at least a third of all Olympic and Paralympic sports have never had a British athlete from a minority ethnic background. Of course, the medals have continued to flow and the public has been lavishly entertained. But it is no longer plausible, if it ever was, to claim that these athletes represent the best of us.

The grand delusion of the London Olympics, however, still exercises a curious foundational power in this country, not just on sport but on wider discourse. To this day it remains deeply contentious, almost taboo, to challenge the dogma that Britain is a tolerant and meritocratic country, an objectively good place whose successes – however achieved – are objectively a good thing. London 2012 did not create these dogmas but it helped to cement them. Arguably, it delayed by years overdue conversations on diversity and structural privilege, partly because many still don’t believe a country that cheered on Farah can possibly be racist.

“We hope,” Boyle wrote in the opening ceremony programme, “that through all the noise and excitement you will glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of… a better world of real freedom and true equality.” London 2012 wasn’t social commentary. It was a utopian fiction. Drunk on our own inferred virtue, we slapped each other on the backs and declared ourselves improved.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain