I had meant to write a post about the Olympics opening ceremony, and what it says about Britain. That was two weeks ago. During which time, we have had pretty much the entire Olympics, and seen some fantastic performances from British athletes. There has been a predictable debate all over the media, blogs, and Twitter, about the nature of Britishness and multiculturalism. Although such subjects are a staple of this blog, I do rather feel as if most of the things I believe have been said by others elsewhere! I consider this to be a good thing – it means there is a growing consensus in favour of the kind of diversity I believe in.
There is still work to be done however. In particular, I am not sure how in-depth the conversation about to Multiculturalism has been. On super Saturday, when Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won gold medals, there was a lot of *literally* skin-deep chat. “Ennis is mixed race. Rutherford is ginger. Farah is black. Look at our diversity! Up yours, BNP!” This feels shallow. What I did not see much of, was a discussion of how their diverse backgrounds had contributed to the success of the athletes. At its best, celebrating multiculturalism is not just about identifying difference. It is about showing how those different traits, faiths, and cultural practices, all contribute to ‘make the man’ (or woman). It is not enough to simply point out that Farah is a Muslim; one has to ask whether his faith has contributed to his astonishing success. And if it has – how? Likewise with Greg Rutherford’s upbringing, or Jessica Ennis experience.
These sorts of questions will be much easier to answer during the paralympics, where everyone competing will have suffered a disability or an accident which will have had an acute effect on the course of their lives. But it is also a valid question to ask of all our athletes, not just those of immigrant heritage or of mixed race.
Finding positive answers to these questions (and there must be positive answers because, well, they are gold medal winners!) is how we forge a respect for people of different backgrounds. We need to show how the coming together of different people, different cultures, and different ideas, has contributed to our success (at the Olympics, and as a modern nation). The victories of Farah et al is a convenient way to begin this conversation, but cannot be the conclusion to it. It simply will not do to simply cite their success, whenever anyone expresses doubt about immigration, or integration. That will not persuade anyone of a different temperament.
Deep down, I think we know that this two week gala cannot haul the entire country into a new cosmopolitan era, where racial tensions and religious discrimination are a thing of the past. That is not how things work. Despite all the flag waving and singing up of our national anthem, London 2012 is not the equivalent of a war (even though the cost of staging the games could have funded several aircraft carriers)! Two weeks of sports cannot by itself change the country as an existential crisis might.
Instead, this is merely a cultural moment, like the emergence of a pop group which captures the Zeitgeist. We may well use the phrase “post 2012” in reference to this summer (which, do not forget, also included the Jubilee celebrations). It will be the most obvious and memorable example of a nation much more at ease with itself, a nation gaining confidence after a period of relative decline. And therefore this summer will become shorthand for that entire process of change, which in reality has taken place over several years (maybe decades).