Iain Sinclair said two things that particularly stuck in my mind, when speaking on Channel 4 News on the eve of the Olympics: that we were about to enter into a ‘wonderful national hallucination‘, and that the Olympic village was ‘a theme park without a theme’. Now that it’s all over, I’m left wondering whether the games had any purpose higher than ‘diversion, distraction and the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace’.
I was walking from the London Buddhist Centre to Victoria Park last Sunday evening with a friend. We were on our way to watch the men’s 100 metres final at one of the live screens in the park, and talking about how we were finding the games. He reminded me of the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ (or bread and games), which Wikipedia tells me comes from Roman satirist and poet Juvenal and is ‘a metaphor for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the creation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction, and/or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.’
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed what I saw of the games. I particularly appreciated the road races, whether on foot or by bike, partly because they were more egalitarian and inclusive for spectators. I was impressed with the friendliness of my city and of the games-maker volunteers in particular. And who can deny that high emotion was generated at the lofty sporting attainments of many competitors?
But what was behind it all? What was it all for? What precisely were we cheering when we applauded the success of ‘Team GB’, or other team of allegiance? What values or ideals were we cherishing, what higher purpose? Or was success, in the games, an end in itself, at the relatively superficial sporting level, a momentary distraction from our current travails? What, ultimately, will be the nature of the phoenix emerging from the flames of the Olympic cauldron?