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So what are we learning from London 2012?

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Robin Lustig | 10:03 UK time, Friday, 3 August 2012

So here we are, one week in, and I'm still trying to get my head round all this Olympics stuff. What I can't quite work out is whether I am meant to be celebrating astounding individual achievement -- that unique combination of skill, training, dedication and sacrifice that makes a champion -- or national prowess, marked by hoist flags, muttered anthems and gold-plated medal tables?

In other words, am I saluting Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy and Helen Glover and Heather Stanning -- or (at time of writing) five golds, six silvers and four bronzes?

The making of Olympic champions is a mysterious business, isn't it? After all, why are the two nations at the top of the national medal table -- China and the US -- about as different as two countries can be when it comes to the relationship between the individual and the collective, yet both, it seems, equally good at turning out medal-winners?

And why is it that the world's two most populous nations, with two of the fastest growing economies on earth -- China and India -- should have such very different Olympic achievements to their name?

As of dawn this morning, China was top of the London 2012 medal table with 18 golds, 11 silvers, and five bronzes -- and India was at number 41 with, er, one bronze. (Four years ago, in Beijing, India did get one gold -- to China's 51 -- in air rifle shooting.)

As it happens, this hasn't been India's week. Not only has it seen China yet again sweep up the Olympic medals as if they were chocolate buttons, but it has suffered the shameful embarrassment of two successive days of disastrous power failures that left up to 600 million people without electricity.

Failed traffic signals, stranded Metro trains, miners trapped underground, hospitals running emergency generators -- it's not exactly the picture India would like to present of itself as a thriving, entrepreneurial economy with a booming private sector and a rapidly expanding middle class.

(Mind you, there are plenty of Indians who know only too well what it means to live without electricity day in and day out. As the spoof headline in the American satirical publication The Onion put it: "300 Million Without Electricity in India After Restoration Of Power Grid." Think about it.)

But I digress. What does it take to make an Olympic champion? On the individual level, clearly you need talent, dedication, a good coach, and a willingness to put your life on hold, if necessary for several years, to reach the heights of Olympian success.

It also helps if you are privately educated: as the chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan, pointed out yesterday, half of the UK medal-winners in Beijing four years ago went to private schools -- something he described as "one of the worst statistics in British sport".

On a national level, you need a structure designed to spot talent early, nurture it, train it and finance it, perhaps to the tune of many tens of thousands of pounds per individual, until that peak of perfection is reached.

In totalitarian states like China, or North Korea, or the old Soviet bloc, it was easy -- you just plucked likely candidates from their kindergartens at an early age and groomed them for athletic stardom. In freer societies, it's more difficult, although as the US has shown, still perfectly possible. The lure of millions in corporate sponsorship can be every bit as persuasive as a Party official.

I spoke this week to a leading Chinese broadcaster who argues that it no longer makes sense for a country like China to obsess about its medals haul -- that as a nation well on its way to becoming the world's number one economy, it no longer needs Olympic glory to persuade the world to take it seriously.

Yet perhaps as long as there are nation states, there will always be a need to encourage national pride. If we no longer charge into war brandishing flags, perhaps it is better that we aim for sporting triumphs instead.

The answer to my original question, I suppose -- do we celebrate the individual or the nation? -- is that we are meant to celebrate both: the winning athlete who bears the flag aloft, and the flag itself, as a symbol of who we believe ourselves to be.

So here's another question: if Team GB acquit themselves with valour, and if London 2012 is deemed to have been a great success, what, if anything, will we have learned about ourselves as a nation?

I suggested before the Games began that we might feel happier if the whole thing turned into a bit of a damp squib -- that the national psyche is tuned more to failure than to success. Now, I'm not so sure. Do I detect a muttering? "Hey, maybe we're not so rubbish after all ..."


  • Comment number 1.

    The Olympic Games don't push my buttons, but I found a John Beattie (not to be confused with Johnny Beattie, who once wrote a speech for Ronald Reagan) take on it, admittedly with at least one eye on the 2014 Commomwealth Games.

    I was particularly taken with his view on the security provided by the Armed Forces, with which I cannot help but agree.

  • Comment number 2.

    The Indian government have announced plans to extend railway electrification, and also plans for a network of new high speed railways (that will probably be partly open by the time we have a decision on HS2).

    They better build a better power grid and some power stations or the trains will not be very fast.

  • Comment number 3.

    Bread and Circuses (panem et circenses) WORKS.

    But solves nothing!

    Come September it will dawn on the UK that three months of partying will have to be paid-for for many years to come.

    We urgently need to return to prudent money and to work towards more real jobs.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is an interesting article, esp when speaking of national pride and current events in the UK, which also happens to be a hub of the world's greatest media outlets. But given Robin's regular coverage of problems worldwide, esp Syria's troubles nowadays, I'd hoped Robin would note (and perhaps try to analyse) also how the Olympics media coverage has become a bit hysterical, even to occasionally marginalise other human plights news concurrent in the world!

    Despite being a big fan of the Olympics, I think it shouldn't dominate media/press as to make the bloodshed & human suffering in Syria secondary.

    Local suffering has reached unspeakable levels. Some local Syrian academics, witnessing first-hand suffering on the ground in Syria, from their positions amid young students and unfolding troubles on Syria' streets, have posted a new article on the following log:


    It increases awareness of the daily inhumanity experiences by locals, to the international readership. Many observe that the Syrian suffering is slipping too easily (disgracefully) from the minds of their fellow citizens of the world. News cover latest developments, but such experiences and logs are mind-openers, at the personal readership level, to how it is like to live in Syria today.
    The academics contributing had to keep their full IDs anonymous for the safety of their relatives in Syria (the regime has been known for abusing or even killing people who may have a dissident cousin!)

  • Comment number 5.

    'I'm still trying to get my head round all this Olympics stuff. What I can't quite work out is whether I am meant to be celebrating ..or ...'

    Part of the problem may be relying on the media, especially national ones, for information or, if a trusting soul, education in such matters.

    From a perch currently around the world, relying on on one's national broadcaster has proven an oddly manic-depressive experience thus far at best.

    Every 'disaster' has been through the 24/7 news maw wringer it seems, especially teething issues, with apparently limitless gobs with mics offering their 2p on what it all 'suggests'. Then even quite modest achievements in contrast get blown up rather more than they really warrant.

    But all seems to be stabilising now, as the non-news gets sidelined in favour of some actual sporting prowess of note.

    The odd thing is the best coverage of this has been online and free. I mean really free (not uniquely interpreted and enhanced with 'views' 'free').

    Going back to the version that has a cost to tell me what I should be thinking when I get back home will take some getting used to.

    But kudos again to this blog for at least allowing sensible discussions. The latest 'The Editors' lasted all of two days before getting closed, and failing even to address a post that simply pointed out a key URL was broken. Truly a return to 'broadcast only' steamrollering that is hardly welcome.

  • Comment number 6.

    "And why is it that the world's two most populous nations, with two of the fastest growing economies on earth -- China and India -- should have such very different Olympic achievements to their name?"

    My suspicion is that India will never reach its full potential --the caste system and the belief in it, is too strong. While both India and China have their share of corruption and massive poverty, China has at least made serious attempts to improve infrastructure for all its citizens.

    Not having been to China I cannot compare the two societies directly, however having seen the ´Slumdog Millionaire´ atrocities, the general wide belief in Horoscopes and having been in many buses driving behind slow moving trucks receiving false signals that they could safely overtake (etc, etc) --- does leave one with more questions than answers.

    -- and puts India in a class of its own-- when discussing ´development´.

  • Comment number 7.

    "Yet perhaps as long as there are nation states, there will always be a need to encourage national pride. If we no longer charge into war brandishing flags, perhaps it is better that we aim for sporting triumphs instead."

    -- " If we no longer charge into war brandishing flags" ?

    -- any examples ?

    (apart from Costa Rica)

  • Comment number 8.

    If we were celebrating personal achievement, why would we need flags & anthems? I'm afraid the Olympics, as it was during the orginal Greek games, is a replacement for war - and not even doing that very well.
    As for China & US, they both search for proper material - talent, dedication, etc - & then nuture/subsidize it - be it with different types of nurturing/sponsoring.
    What are we learning from London 2012?
    1. Individual countries can no longer afford to carry the expense of the Olympics.
    2. As much as we think the fastest, highest, strongest will become winners, most often the fastest, highest, strongest is not even present; s/he is busy trying to grow food or cope without other needs.

  • Comment number 9.

    The Olympics make good distration, but tensions still simmer below the buzz. The Olympics will not make recession or frustration disappear. If anything things will get worse when the Olympic are over, the costs assessed, & it's seen the debt has only increased.
    I fear another flare-up post Olympics - without all the security.
    Austerity will bite. Britain has failed to tackle root causes for the riots = poverty, unemployment, bad parenting, obsessive consumerism, marginalisation/exclusion, anger towards authority, or whatever.
    British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, blamed "the moral collapse of society" and promised "zero tolerance" for troublemakers. Well, there you go: Problem solved!
    Is 29-year-old Mark Duggan still dead? His father said family had still not received a full explanation of how he died. Provisional date for an inquest into Duggan's death has been set for January 2013.
    (That should stir the pot.)


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