Olympics 2012—a personal view (well, a bit of a tirade to be honest) by Dave Harris

I like sport and athletics, and even dabbled a bit myself when I was a kid.  I like watching sport and athletics on TV as well.  I would describe my own pleasures in terms of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’, where you can escape the mundane worries and anxieties of everyday life and flow along with sporting activity in a kind of timeless state; or Lyng’s notion of ‘edgework’, where you face your fears about doing something dangerous, overcome those fears, and thereby learn something about yourself.  Even a dabbler can get some idea of what it is all about.

But I do have some likes and dislikes of the actual TV coverage of the Olympics this year, which I thought I might share with you.

I like watching sport and athletics for slightly unusual reasons, perhaps.  For example, those areas are about the last areas of public life where it is possible to display both acceptance of, even admiration for, elitism. There is also the deployment of what are usually called 'male emotions'—stoicism and cheerfulness in the face of pain and frustration, sticking to the rules even where they disadvantage you, taking the good and bad decisions, showing respect for opponents, based on the full awareness that they play a major part as well in the pleasure that you get from sport and athletics.  I also liked the convention that says after all the struggle and effort, it is common to pretend none of it really matters, to have a laugh about it. That these qualities are classically (and too simply) associated with males is sometimes unfortunate and makes people want to apologise for them in that Guardian-reader guilty sort of way.

The Guardian today --14 Aug 2012 -- had a classic letter saying how marvellous it is that men can now hug each other and cry in public.  If the writer had cared to look around, I am sure she would have seen men crying and hugging in public at funerals, sometimes televised ones like the events at Wootton Bassett, long before the London Olympics -- doesn't that count?

Admiring elite achievement is unusual in public life.  For example, it would be absolutely forbidden to celebrate high personal achievement in education, even where it is based on long and hard effort. That would only demoralise the others and lower their self-esteem for ever. Why don't we handicap 100-metre runners so they all cross the line at the same time and everyone gets a medal?

It is now almost impossible to express 'male' emotions, given the shift of education towards therapy noted by several commentators, which brings with it a kind of omnipresent weepy empathy, and the denial of any difference, including differences between what people think, differences between good and bad arguments and the rest.  If educational tasks cause adverse emotional responses, we do not expect students to overcome and manage these responses, develop stoicism and cheerfulness, work hard so as to make sure they are not going to be beaten by some trivial task, stick to the rules, and have a laugh about it all afterwards.  Instead, we change the tasks, even though that doesn't work either: there is no bottom to the slide. Soon, asking students to say anything at all will be deemed too stressful and we will allow them to smile vacantly instead (if they want to) before returning to Facebook.

The Guardian today -- 14 Aug 2012 -- (what would I do without it) had a classic article in its Education section saying that some psychology outfit is offering counselling to kids on A-level results day. Stress has arisen in some (well, one) after all the ramping and drama in the media and after exaggerated grade predictions from teachers, it seems.

This gets me to what I don’t like about TV coverage.  Not only does it miss most of the qualities that I quite like in sport, it tries to add the ones I don’t like.  It celebrates elite athletic performance, but exaggerates and individualises it, so that those who ‘merely’ get silver and bronze medals, who ‘merely’ get to the final, or ‘merely’ make the team in the first place are largely ignored, unless their British nationality somehow compensates and gets them a mention as an also-ran.  Even if the difference between winners and losers is tiny, fractions of a second or metre, a couple of hundredths of a point, possibly falling within the limits of ‘luck’, poor measurement, the effects of the particular conditions on the day or whatever, the value of the gold relative to the others is never questioned. It's a kind of sacred thing (meaning 'not to be questioned').

The Flame had the same sacred status in the run up. It was kindled in Greece in front of the cameras by a bunch of actors posing as priestesses, using a mirror (couldn't quite make out the brand name), and almost certainly by the Zippos of the security team now and then, in an ancient ceremony dating back all the way to... Nazi Germany. The ceremony was designed then to show the (ideological) connections between the Aryans of ancient Greece and the Aryans of the Reich. Thereafter,  'the Flame' seemed to have a life of its own. 'It' travelled, 'it' met people. People went to see 'it'. Suddenly the whole country went Zoroastrian. Well, Zoroastrianism is probably too difficult. I can already see the journal articles or Newsnight Arts items (spot the difference) saying the worship of flames predates Christianity and awakens our unconscious  awareness of the importance of women and the domestic setting of hearths.

The commentators and interviewers often do refer to the hard work and exertion that lies behind elite performance (although they are less explicit about factors such as unequal resources, the advantages of a well-provided social background and so on). In fact, some commentators even insist that exhausted athletes must mention these factors when interviewed, together with the thanks that they owe to family, friends and coaches: we cannot even rely on athletes to produce the requisite clichés spontaneously. With any luck, this will produce tears as well (see below).  These clichés routinise and generalise the experience, and you find them equally commonly in interviews with the winners in beauty and talent contests and lotteries, as if sport and athletics is just the same.  The inevitable consequence is left dangling in the air over the losers—they have obviously not worked hard enough, made enough sacrifices, or been shrewd enough in their choice of friends, family and coach.  Luckily, some interviewees are strong enough to resist this discourse: some have thanked and praised their opponents (Bolt got close, certainly demonstrating genuine respect for the others in the 100-metres line up, and asking the crowd to do the same); some have refused to see silver or bronze as a failure -- I mean Rebecca Adlington and Tom Daley.

RA turned on the interviewer trying to get her to agree with the script, and said that any dick who thought that getting a bronze was no good had never done her sport. I didn't see the interviewer but I hope it was that plump pryer P Jones who looks more at home in a pub than in a pool. TD showed the benefits of a (short) public school education by seizing the initiative brilliantly -- he refused to countenance any unspoken view that his recently deceased father would have been disappointed with his 'failure', well before anyone had dared even to hint at it, and announced he was sorry his Dad had not been there to see his marvellous achievement (bronze) which would have made him proud of his son. Daley even had the sheer nerve to celebrate afterwards by jumping in the pool with his buddies. The gauche teenager! By the time Rio comes around we can only hope he is mature enough to cry like everyone else.

It’s not unusual for sociologists to refer to sport as a form of religion, not always in a derogatory way.  When people gather in anonymous crowds, witness unusual performances and see the exciting effects on other people, they can develop an unusual ‘ecstatic’ perspective themselves.  They see themselves and their companions in a new light, although when they come down and leave the ritual, they revert to their normal views.  For Durkheim, the ecstasy is directed at seeing society itself as some transcendent reality.  Good old simple television sometimes refers to this in a suitably trivial way—the Games show what Britain is really like.  Well, it shows what Great Britain is really like when it hosts the Olympic games...

The same eager and easy generalisations go for athletes  as representatives of This Great Nation of Ours-- when and where exactly did Mo Farah imbibe 'really',  essentially, British qualities en route from his Somali origin through Feltham to his American domicile? Does Andy Murray represent British qualities in his tennis-playing, acquired from some mysterious properties acquired at birth, or American ones from his extensive coaching (or Czech/US ones I suppose, from Ivan Lendl)? Confusion also arose when we nearly claimed the reverse as well, that R. Meilutyte owed her gold medal in 100m women's breaststroke to her residence in Plymouth and not to her Lithuanian heritage.

The handy political consequences are also pretty obvious—politicians see this is a circus with the classic role of diverting the populace from the usual highly divisive and far more realistic notion of Britain: we will be back to normal soon enough, although TV can be relied upon to offer repeats, reminders, special commemorations, low budget programming in general etc . This is what TV will see as its 'legacy' - that and all the commercially available DVDs, overseas sales etc. Politicians will milk the 'legacy' as long as they can: after all, they still invoke Dunkirk 72 years after it happened.

As for official attempts to represent Britain, they began surprisingly well with the opening ceremony.  I suppose I had such low expectations that the results weren’t quite as naff and appalling as I had expected.  I quite liked seeing Bond put on the same footing as Her Maj. I also remembered that a senior administrator once told me that my teaching materials on the popularity of Bond were unsuitable for a modern media studies course, since Bond was a 'phenomenon that has had its time'. That was in 1996, shortly before a further 2 Bond films were made and there have been 4 others since, all box-office smashes, with another one being shot as we speak. Having said that, it was noticeable that the industrial revolution succeeded Merrie England in a relatively painless way, without any nasty enclosures of land, excessive exploitation, or grinding poverty, and the National Health Service was celebrated without any suggestion that it might be under threat.  It also permitted us cynics to read the story differently -- once, long ago,  British entrepreneurs like Brunel (British? His dad wasn't]  made useful stuff, but now they fiddle the books of banks on the Net for a living.

The actual lighting of the torch was done in a pretty sentimental way I thought, and with televisual literariness—the younger generation received the flame passed on by the older one [geddit?], while the rest of us fought back our tears. Oh for the days when all our eyes used to mist over at the thought of youth fulfilling its promise, before youth rioted or found itself unemployed --just after World War 2 it was.

The popular culture sequence was pretty bland as expected, but, even so, better than the dreadful performances in the closing ceremony.  The organizers of the closing bit seem to imagine that popular culture in Britain is represented largely by middle of the road acts or Dads' favourites like the reformed Spice Girls, or the equally unfortunately and partially reformed Take That. George Michael fer Chrissake! Poor old Elbow and Eric Idle were thoroughly heritagised. Russell Brand was allowed to perform one of the best Beatles-era  songs (Walrus) with his shrill Frank Spencer-type voice - -why couldn't he have chosen The Frogs' Chorus? .The remaining members of Queen attempted to bridge the generations by having Jessie J reappear to reprise F Mercury, but, inevitably, the elderly and rich Who closed the session, singing themes from Townshend's absurd and deservedly forgotten 'rock opera' and My Generation -- why don't you all f-f-fade away indeed.  Two fingers to the young then.

Incidentally, what is it that makes us cry at sporting events?  Athletes might cry from sheer relief at not having to endure pain once the event is finished off.  They might cry because they did not do as well as they had expected, although I still do not think proper sportspeople do this, at least not in public.  They seem to cry when reminded about all the hard work and effort, and sacrifices of family and friends.  Is this guilt?  I think it could also be self pity.  Is this why the audience cries?  They look back and see themselves as little kids who could have been contenders, and pity themselves because fate dealt them a different hand?  Some clever bastard defined the difference between real emotion and sentimentality in terms of who you are weeping for -- others or for yourself?  Only you know, dear reader, what you are thinking when you well up...

I think people also cry because they have been manipulated by the media, who not only fill in the back story and build up the tension in the corniest of emotional narratives, and then show in close up lots of people having emotional reactions, but which emphasise emotions for their own purposes.  Elite sport is rather specialist for the lay audience, and the vast majority of people who do not do it,  and whenever there’s a distance to be bridged, the media rely on emotions to do it.  Emotions are allegedly universal, we can all participate emotionally by summoning our inner infant, and thus the programmes can be marketed world-wide, and we can all be persuaded to watch endless TV coverage about sport and activities we know nothing about.  Tales of tragedy began to creep in at various stages to add a little lustre.  Athletes had had unhappy childhoods, recent bereavements, disappointments: naturally, the audience wanted to share those, TV executives imagined. I was hoping to hear about abortions, horrible boils in armpits, piles, cases of cancer, nasty discharges, hormonal irregularities or AIDS -- next time, perhaps We could all wallow in a safe vicarious experience of tragedy, a bit like getting a thrill from watching pornography.

I worry about unfocussed affect, as I said once before (in the file on Princess Diana). Fascism appeals to the emotions. When emotions overcome reason, strong men thrive and outsiders suffer. Populists get more money to spend as well. The emotionally gripped turn on the rest of us with considerable malice and deep suspicion because we don't want to join in. Nothing turns into an intolerant fascist quicker than an empathic person encountering disagreement.

It is in this sense that sport has become commercialised in my view, and it is less to do with open corporate sponsorship.  Sport has lost its special qualities that made it very non commercial—an eye on some higher purpose, non-calculative sportspersonship, social solidarity.  These have all been transformed into highly commercial qualities. There is the endless dissatisfying competition, very much like endless dissatisfying consumerism: London is ended, let Rio begin, or the world championships, or the diamond league or whatever.  At my most cynical, I wondered if some of the tears of the silver medallists were not prompted by the thought of losing lucrative sponsorship or advertising contracts, or how long it will be before these commercial considerations predominate in motivation.  Sportspeople are becoming stars, celebrities, charismatic individuals, brands for themselves and not just for the kit they wear.

So -- what of women boxing? Great as a kind of formal equality and all that, but what a shame that more people are being dragged into a degrading and exploitative bloodsport so fat cats can make money by introducing novelty into a tired, old, cruel spectacle (see Wacquant's insider's account).

Television sometimes tries to cover this growing trivialization and spectacularization at the same time as encouraging it, mostly in the form of solemn discussions of ‘legacy’.  Legacy is of course a deeply ambiguous term already, covering the opportunities for business based on feel-good factors, through alleged benefits on the health and welfare of children, to hopes for a production line of future elite athletes and more work for coaches and sports scientists, to intangible feelings of well-being.  Some of these probably contradict each other, of course, unless you think that what is good for Ford is good for America (or UK equivalents -- G4S? Barclays Bank?). All these claims have of course been researched, usually with ambivalent results. (There really are loads of articles-- try these two which I summarised -- here and here). So much easier to ignore the research and the difficulties, and to just discuss the issues in a television studio or newspaper column, as amateurs do, based on what your dinner companions say.

They might at last have followed up some of the contradictions in their own stories. Many competitors seem to have had serious injuries in the past (Beth Tweddle was mentioned in the Guardian -- many broken bones including ankles 6 times and cheekbones twice). Sport leads to a healthy lifestyle? To ride one of my hobby horses, how much does it cost the NHS to repair sports injuries every year? The data are not recorded but, going on Australian data, it must be in the billions -- probably not far from the much-better publicised costs of obesity.

What do athletes do when they have finished their competitions? The press tell us they often binge and party. As people like Dunning have argued, this shows that sport and 'unhealthy' eating/drinking are not opposites but often combined in the same lifestyle, especially with non-elite sportspeople. Which bits of behaviour are kids supposed to copy when they do 'role-modelling' (another cliche well outside of its limited application in coaching, and emerging in 1960s American sociology)? 

And if anyone says 'focus' or 'execution' to me again in the context of sport, I shall burst into tears myself.

You didn't expect TV to offer any sort of proper debate did you? It can't but keep offering the simplest and most immediate commentaries, voyeurism and nice infantile emotions. We should be farkin grateful for it and the dubious tears it brings, our masters think.

OK. Rant over. Back to the serious files