Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Britain created modern sport -- why was this ignored in the Olympic Opening Ceremony?

Much has been written about the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, most of it overwhelmingly positive. On the whole, I thought it was a tremendous success -- and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone and some aspects of it have been criticised both at home and abroad. At home, many critics have complained, rightly or wrongly, that several segments were marred by an overtly left-wing / liberal bias (most notably the focus on the NHS). Abroad, critics have expressed disappointment that so much of the production was bewildering and mystifying to foreign audiences unfamiliar with various aspects of British history and culture.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to cover popular culture -- and there is little point repeating what has already been written -- however, as much as I enjoyed the ceremony (and I certainly do not wish to appear unduly negative -- it was a great show) I thought it profoundly regrettable that the organisers did not seize upon this unique opportunity to highlight what, in the context of the Olympics, should have been the most obvious and relevant British achievement -- the creation of modern sport.

Sport is as much a part of Britain's contribution to global civilisation as the English language, parliament, the common law and the industrial revolution. In their modern forms, football, boxing, tennis, golf, cricket, rugby, field hockey, ice hockey (yes, ice hockey!), baseball (yes, baseball!), table tennis, netball, rounders, modern polo, bowls, curling, snooker and darts were either created or codified by the British. (Britain also created the Paralympic games!) 

With an almost missionary zeal, the British spread these sports, and the general concept of sportsmanship and organised sport as competition and pastime, throughout the British Empire and, subsequently, the wider world. Britain may no longer excel or lead the world in actually winning many of these sports, but no country on the face of the earth has made a greater contribution to the world of modern sport.

The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is intended in part to focus upon the ideals of the Olympic spirit. How strange, then, that the unique opportunity to celebrate this remarkable British legacy in front of a global audience was ignored. I wager that most citizens of the world, many of whom are no doubt largely ignorant of the extent of Britain's contribution, would have found this enduring legacy considerably more interesting and relevant than the curious focus upon a subject as parochial as the National Health Service.

The great Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, made a splendid cameo appearance in the opening ceremony. He famously gave his invention to the world for free, and the organisers acknowledged this by spelling out the phrase "THIS IS FOR EVERYONE" in LCD lights across half of the stadium. It was a tremendous piece of theatre --- but I could not help but reflect that the same phrase could have been used in reference to the British gift of sport.

In the end, it fell upon an outsider, Count Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, to point out in his speech the fact which should have been a key component of the ceremony:

"In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight. This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was included as an educational tool in the school curriculum. 

"The British approach to sport had a profound influence on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder, as he developed the modern Olympic movement at the close of the 19th century."

As much as I enjoyed the spectacular opening ceremony for the world's greatest sporting event, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of regret at this missed opportunity to celebrate Britain's unique and unequalled contribution to the very subject which is the focus of the Olympics.

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