On August 4th 2012 I could be seen making the fittings and furniture shake as I jumped around my girlfriend’s living room yelling encouragement and praise at fellow 10k runner Mo Farah gunning his way to gold. Two days later I found myself crying buckets with Felix Sanchez, a man I hadn’t heard of until a few hours before, and I swear I’ve given more of a shit about the histories and interactions of the women’s Olympic gymnastics teams than those of any book or TV drama.
These past six weeks when I’ve talked to people about the Olympics and Paralympics, two main things have been apparent. Firstly, everyone I spoke to has been interested and had something of their own to say. Nobody shrugged, rolled their eyes, and tried to change the subject. Secondly, most these people were completely surprised at my enthusiasm for the games.
Their surprise isn’t misplaced. While right now I may be on the hunt for a bootleg Team GB jacket and have a 3 foot Felix Sanchez painting on back-order, before the Olympics opening ceremony you couldn’t get anything out of me but derision and cynicism. I felt that the games weren’t for me, and even tweeted on July 26th (Olympics-Eve) that “I will not be blogging about the Olympics, because I don’t live in London.” I feel now that this is an attitude that was fed to me by poor branding, and ineffective misplaced discussion and promotion before the event.
In the months before the games, the media furore was lead largely by advertising, advertising that didn’t really introduce any new concepts or properties. It wasn’t about something new and amazing that was soon to arrive, it was about already existing humdrum or quite frankly shite things bending their existing words and campaigns to suit the Olympics. Drinks, foods, shoes, tampons… there was an Official Everything of London 2012, and anyone that didn’t get an official sponsorship deal still managed to “support our athletes” and slap a Union flag on whatever they were selling.
In my day to day life, I don’t “support” particular supermarkets, fast food chains, soaps or sanitary brands, but this is what the relentless pre-games advertising was supposedly gearing audiences to do. P&G’s disgustingly sexist “Proud Sponsors of Mums” campaign did nothing to encourage Olympic fever, but rather fed off the Olympic spectacle as a context for celebrating their own brand. The campaign went as far to suggest that Olympic glory would be impossible without their paper towels, washing detergents and shampoos.
Even the more discussive elements of the media were geared less towards preparing the country for an outpouring of human spirit, and instead focused on ticket availability issues, staffing problems, budget trouble and traffic congestion. The hundreds of thousands of visitors to the UK were presented as a problem or an obstacle, not something to be excited about. The London 2012 band wasn’t a banner to gather under, but a commercially excluding dystopian label to fear and mock.
Relentless human determination and the coming together of the world in competition was only ever brought out as a defence against the cynics, and was never really waved as a flag in its own right. There was always a sense of “keep your eyes on this, because a lot of people have worked hard on it, so be grateful” and never a sense of “we have an inkling that this will move and inspire you, so please stay with us.”
I completely divested myself from the Olympics until the opening ceremony, when my heart sank with the realisation that its scale and importance had been completely under-represented, and all my derision and cynicism had been wasted on something that was about to hit every single emotional note and hold my interest so intently that for the next forty-two days my productivity would be floored. I felt angry that I had been misled, and ashamed that I had let it happen so easily.
While the BBC coverage of the Olympics was fantastically broad, well edited and had just the right balance of impartiality and team spirit, I have to say I was shouting abuse at one relatively minor segment where BBC Sport’s Jake Humphrey was interviewing comedian and off-and-on football pundit Frank Skinner. In the fairly casual and genuinely entertaining interview, Frank Skinner explained that he had felt no enthusiasm in the run-up to the Olympics, but was happy that he become caught up in it once the games eventually began.
Rather than celebrating the power of the games to turn the cynics and inspire in them a previously lacking enthusiasm, Jake Humphrey shot Skinner down and painted him as some sort of nay-saying villain, even encouraging the gathered crowd to boo him like it was some kind of fucking pantomime. To foster this rejection of latecomers smacks of ignorance, and works against the successful spirit of the games itself. It was the only time during the event that I felt genuinely alienated.
I appreciate that sport and athletics exists very much in the moment. That final throw, jump, or sprint for the finish line is packed with tension, drama, and a myriad of emotions that can never be completely captured in a promotional campaign. Yet the absolute saturation of the media with Olympic paraphernalia and associations only served to further alienate those already on the outside of sport and patriotism. It was a unyielding assault that did far more harm than good, a demand to pay attention rather than encouragement to do so. The Olympics would’ve been much better served had the hype taken a back-seat and let the truly phenomenal stories and moments of the games themselves take precedent.