Why We Miss The Olympics

 by Fay Davies

After the closing ceremony on Sunday, I felt lost. The Olympics would no longer occupy a vast proportion of my time and Twitter output. I couldn't remember how to resume normal life. London 2012, as Russian ambassador Aleksander Yakovenko put it, 'was not bad'. It wasn't bad! Thank goodness. But why does it matter? Why do we care so much about the Olympic Games?
Maybe it stems from a desire to be the best. There is something incredibly emotive about seeing an athlete win a race, especially when it is replayed seven times in slow motion. It's a perfect visual metaphor for, perhaps, 'our country beats your country'. The competition between the countries themselves, let alone the athletes, plays an undeniable role in our love of the Olympics, illustrated perfectly by the medal table. It's almost as if a country's final position on the table indicates its general greatness. The New York Times went to great lengths to ensure that the USA was on top during the early stages of the games, changing the system to rank by total number of any medals and therefore placing them above China – who had more golds at that point. It just so happens that this system makes Great Britain finish 4th. The very fact that I am indignant enough to point this out is an indicator of how involved I became with the Games, and I doubt that I am alone. The Olympics is meant to be about something like 'the peaceful coming together of nations', but we are innately tribal really.
Part of the reason we care about the Olympics is because we care what other people think of us, and the rest of the world enjoy the opportunity for an inspection. The BBC news give a great deal of space to articles like 'How The World Saw The Olympic Games', showing such gems as this review from China's newspaper People's Daily: 'From the wrong national flag being hung for the North Korean women's football team in the women's football group match before the opening ceremony to losing keys to Wembley Stadium; from no toilets at the basketball hall to one baffling penalty decision after another...' In general, though, the Games let the host country demonstrate its superiority to the rest of the world. This phenomenon is no better encapsulated than by the opening ceremony. Comedienne Sarah Millican tweeted after the ceremony: 'Wowsers, well I think the Olympics went really well. Thought there'd be more sport but happy that we did well.' She speaks the truth: the desire to impress with this four-hour spectacular overshadows the actual purpose of the Games. Unless, of course, this is the actual purpose of the Games. To show off.
And what of the athletes?
Their portrayal in montages, interviews and advertising campaigns alike is nothing short of hero worship. In the first week, I found myself swept up in it all, but, as Team GB's gold count increased, along with the glory and the superlatives, it all began to border on excessive. From the moment Clare Balding apologised for her flagrant disappointment over Adlington's bronze, it became illegal to show anything less than adoration for the athletes. After Tom Daley gained a medal, one presenter remarked that he deserved it simply 'for being a brilliant person'. The horses received the same treatment: during the dressage, one commentator couldn't hold back the fierce exclamation 'don't ever tell me horses can't dance'. This was probably when it reached the point of being absurd. Rupert Sawyer, writing for the Guardian, condemns Team GB's 'abysmal performances', claiming that 'these people are no more heroic than the audience share of ITV1 in recent weeks'. He's not completely serious, but there is some truth in what he is saying. Perhaps this worship of our athletes is really just a symptom of the worship of the Olympics as a whole: this opportunity to show who's best. When a British athlete wins, it's because Britain is great: a victory for everyone.
This is all very well, but what makes the Olympic Games different from any world championship? It could be its relative infrequency and the sense of ancient tradition it brings with it, but I suspect there really is something special about it; something virtuous. I think that it does 'bring the world closer together', somehow, if only because the world congregates in one place – not just physically but through television feeds. We shouldn't forget that some of the real highlights of the Games were the Jamaican domination of the 200 metres, Rudisha's 800 metres win, and Kiprotich's marathon victory. Despite the international rivalry, these were the moments when we threw aside our national pride and appreciated the breathtaking triumph of individuals.

Read: George Neame's review of The Opening Ceremony

Read: 10 Reasons the Olympics Have Been Absolutely Awesome and The Legacy of London 2012.