I am someone for whom the word ‘patriotism’ has always felt a little uncomfortable and conjured up images of either skinhead racism or imperial nostalgia. I am not the sort of person you would expect to now actively be searching for a large Union flag but I am doing just that. Walking down Oxford Street yesterday under huge flags of every competing nation interspersed with the Olympic rings, only the most unfeelingly hardened of cynics would refuse to acknowledge that there is just something in the air right now. From the goosebump-inducing and unashamedly British Opening Ceremony to shouting at the TV as the horribly tense equine version of the penalty shootout unfolded in Greenwich Park yesterday afternoon, I have felt something that, until now, was completely alien to me. I have felt a surge of pride for my country, its people and what it can achieve.
And I am pretty sure that I am not alone. The articles about the Olympic Games, both sporting and non-sporting, in my newspaper (The Times) are full of an unabashed praise and yes, that word again, pride for what our organising committee, our athletes and our country are in the process of achieving. Seventeen million people roared Jessica Ennis home in the heptathlon, urged Mo Farah to the finish line in the 1,500 metres and stood and watched in disbelief as Greg Rutherford became the best British long-jumper for half a century. At Eton Dorney, and on televisions and computer screens in workplaces up and down the country, people from every conceivable background rowed each stroke with the crews as British boats came home for medal after medal. Tonight, Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton will be urged across the line by the roars of millions as Team GB go for gold medals number six and seven in the velodrome. This Olympic Games, even with six days of competition still to come, has provided some remarkable and historic sporting achievements that will go down firmly in Olympic history.
What is just as remarkable as the achievements of Team GB in London’s sporting arenas and what will be just as significant is the impact that these Games have had on their host nation. In Beijing in 2008, China stepped up to present itself to a global audience, to sell itself to the world and announce its presence on the international stage. For Britain this year there is a different story. The country does not need selling to a global audience; the success of London 2012 is in selling Britain to itself.
We are a nation of cynics and of self-deprecation. We generally feel uneasy at brash and jingoistic national self-aggrandisement, something we disparagingly associate with the Americans. We don’t have the perceived French surety about our sense of collective identity or the sense of renewal and hope that comes out of decades of turmoil in nations such as South Africa. Too often it is perceived that what we have in this country is bad weather, bad food, a faltering economy, poor infrastructure, violence, gang culture, teenage pregnancy, racism and intolerance. In fact, if you read the Daily Mail even now, at the height of the mid-Games feel-good factor you would still believe that this is all that we have. But that newspaper is one of very few places where such attempts to degrade and downplay this country exists.
Amid scenes of sporting triumph we have seen the stories of this country. When the Mail said that the Opening Ceremony image of a white woman and a black man living happily together in modern Britain was unrealistic, they rubbished and insulted the family of the Queen of the Olympic Stadium, Jess Ennis. This incredible athlete, built with Sheffield steel and determination, is remarkable for her sporting achievements and not her family background. This is something for Britain to be proud of.
When Mo Farah came to London as an eight year old Somali war refugee he barely spoke English. This country adopted him and he adopted it. On Saturday night, the nation cheered a black, Muslim asylum seeker, and a proud Brit, to gold in the city that he calls home. All the scaremongering, the islamophobia, the racism, the intolerance in the tabloid press, for all the comments about mixed-race marriages not working or Muslims or asylum seekers never being truly British was made to look as small-minded as it really is. There are those who say ‘It would be lovely if these things worked but they just do not’. These Olympic Games have shown not only that they can work but that they do, right now, right here in Britain. The Jessica Ennises and Mo Farahs may be the front pages but theirs is a story reflected up and down this country. Proof that this country is, at its heart, tolerant and accepting. A truth we appear to be starting to believe.
For roughly the cost of half of Fernando Torres, Danny Boyle staged the most incredible show in the Olympic Stadium on the opening night of the Games. Quirky, funny, inclusive, almost entirely volunteer staffed and British to a tee, the Opening Ceremony captured the hectic, transient, noisy, vibrant, varied and chaotic nature of this country and its people. London was welcoming the world to a city in which the language of every competing athlete was already spoken by someone who calls it home. A city where food, culture and music from every corner of the globe mingle together. Where the transport system works, where the Olympic Park is full of meadows and wild flowers and where the greatest show on Earth is in full swing.
People attacked the cost, the ticketing, the legacy, the timing. They said the transport, the stadia, the infrastructure would all fail. Now, as a nation, we are looking in awe at just what we can do. At what we are. At what we can achieve. The sense of unity, of positivity may be short-lived but the seed has been planted. The seed of optimism that says Britain can do it, that from the old imperial power comes a new, rejuvenated, multi-cultural, tolerant society that welcomes people from around the world for a day or for a lifetime. The sense for us all that it’s OK to have pride in these mixed-up, mongrel islands and what’s more that there is so much up and down the country for us to be proud about. As always with the Brits, it’s the little things that matter.
That is the real impact of London 2012.