I accept that the Olympic Games leave some people cold. There are those who don’t like sports at all. There are those who are scornful about some activities that now qualify as Olympic sports. Then there are those who insist it is all a waste of money, those who think it’s been poisoned by drugs and politics, those who bridle at the parochial media coverage and those who seem reflexively determined to dislike anything popular.
I’ll admit there have been times, especially during the cold war and the drug scandals, when I dallied with some of those thoughts about the Olympics myself. But London 2012 blew them out of the water. That experience was almost universally positive. It was also unambiguously good for Britain. It would have been churlish and out-of-touch to ignore the shared pleasure that surrounded those games. This year, in very different and more difficult circumstances, Tokyo 2020 has confirmed that conversion. These games have also been a global affirmation. Most of the public is captivated. And the experience has been good for a battered Britain, too.
A lot of that is down to Covid. Tokyo 2020 has turned out to be more life-affirming than anyone had any right to expect amid so much global distress. At times, this cultural embrace even extended to sporting rivals themselves. When 13-year-old Sky Brown won her bronze medal on Wednesday, reports highlighted how the eight skateboard finalists all showed fantastic camaraderie towards one another, cheering each other’s daredevil skill and consoling one another after falls. Many medallists and competitors have said in their interviews that they felt inspired to excel as a defiance of all that the world has been through for the past 18 months.
But the Games have also confirmed the instinctive confidence with which the Olympics allow today’s Britain to present itself to the world as a diverse and outward-looking society. London 2012 paved the way for that, of course. Danny Boyle’s inspired opening ceremony gave modern Britain a capacious and pluralist national vision of itself for the 21st century. The athletes rose to the occasion and the public embraced it, not least in the life-enhancing way that the country so readily extended the embrace to the Paralympics too.
And in spite of the divisions of Brexit and the seductions of various divisive extremisms, that capacious nation is still very much there. It has shone out from the Tokyo Games. It has helped a lot that British politics has been kept at bay, at least thus far. Happily, Boris Johnson has not yet tried to insert himself into the Olympic feelgood mood in the way that he tried so abjectly during football’s Euros in June and July. Whether he has learned from that mistake or simply has not yet got round to this particular photo-op remains to be seen. But the larger point is surely that Team GB have managed to construct and control their own narrative about the country without politicians, the tabloids or flag-waving culture wars of any kind.
You would need a heart of stone not to melt at some of Team GB’s stories. Tom Daley’s diving gold medal climaxed a career in the pool, but his pride in being both a gay man and an Olympic champion soared beyond the realm of mere sport. Who didn’t feel just a bit better for a while about hard-pressed inner-city Britain when Kye Whyte, AKA the prince of Peckham, won his BMX silver medal in Tokyo and returned to south London to pose for hundreds of selfies from young fans to whom, in his own words, he was “more like an older brother”? How fabulous, too, that these Olympics saw the birth of mixed male and female relays, in which Britain also seemed to excel. How come it took until now to come up with that breakthrough format?
There are, though, two very different Team GBs. In the Olympic arena itself, as in the BBC’s nightly Clare Balding and Alex Scott highlights programmes, and across the wider country, the sporting Team GB manages to be celebratory, inclusive and outward-facing. In the realm of politics, Team GB is almost a misnomer. British governance is riddled with division, meanness and mutual hostility. Scotland’s first minister works ceaselessly to break up the team. The UK prime minister will not even meet her when he visits this week. Wales’s leader regularly complains that London never listens. Northern Ireland, too, is mostly ignored.
Thirty-one years ago, John Major stood in Downing Street as Margaret Thatcher’s successor and offered the healing hope of “a nation at ease with itself”. In his years in office he was not particularly successful at achieving that. However, one of Major’s legacies was the national lottery. After a poor British performance at the 1996 Olympics, he also set up the lottery-funded National Sport Academy. Subsequent British Olympic successes, including those in Tokyo, owe much to these moves, and thus to Major’s view of Britain.
Team GB has come closer than most to creating, albeit briefly, a modern country at ease with itself. The contrast with the non-team of political GB is painful. Nine years on from the London Games, the disjunction between the country we wanted to be in 2012, and almost became, and the country we are now in fact becoming is glaring. In the Olympics we may think we glimpse the best of ourselves, and perhaps a hope for the future. In politics we currently see the worst, amid a deepening fear about what is to come.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist