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Columnists

A good sport

Paul Vallely

VallelyLooking back, what were the Olympics all about? All the pre-Games scepticism about the £9bn cost - or the Faustian pact with big business, or the ineptitude of private sector organisers, or the entrenched privilege of the Olympic oligarchs, or the dubiety of the politicians' grandiose claims about legacy - all that pretty swiftly evaporated when public enthusiasm for the sporting contests themselves began. Something caught fire in the public imagination and it felt good for us, individually and collectively.
It was not, in the end, about sport. That might seem an odd thing to say. But that great celebration of youthful energy and achievement spoke to something deeper. By that I don't mean the old Victorian notion, ascribed to the famed headmaster of Rugby public school, Thomas Arnold, that sport is somehow morally improving. There is more to sport than keeping fit, the argument goes, there is a meaning to it which grows from the self-discipline and team work it requires. It teaches self-awareness, the value of both competition and co-operation, the role of the individual and the team. It's about abiding by rules, but also by a spirit of fairness and respect for other people's abilities. Morality is thus built into sport.

That notion only goes so far. Interestingly it was not the view of Arnold so much as the fictionalised version of him immortalised in the 1857 children's novel Tom Brown's Schooldays which insisted that sport could reach out beyond the playing fields of Rugby (or indeed Eton) to shape society for its greater good. 'It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn't play that he may win, but that his side may.'

It was as much part of the birthright of British boys, old and young, as were habeas corpus and trial by jury. The gatling's jammed and the colonel's dead but we can jolly well bowl Johnny Foreigner a few imperial googlies.

In fact the real Arnold did not have much time for organised games and on occasions even banned certain sports at Rugby. But in any case none of that has chimed much with modern attitudes. Sport is now more likely to be seen as an expression of some primitive social Darwinism. It's about winners and losers, alpha status, like the locking horns of a pair of stags or the proud narcissism of the peacock's tail in full display. Sport is about hierarchy and winning. The potency of that view was on display in the arguments of those who said that trying to lose in badminton (to secure an easier next round) or deliberately crashing your bike, was just tactics not cheating. But such unsportsmanlike views did not dominate, as the crowd's booing of the effortless badminton rounds showed.

Still if sport can be used for the morally good it can also be manipulated the other way. The modern Olympic razzmatazz was, after all, invented at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 as a showcase for Nazi values. The much-lauded torch relay was actually an invention of the master-propagandist Goebbels. In any case sport does not need to rely on utilitarian considerations about social outcomes or moral improvement to justify its existence - whether to instil Victorian personal moral virtues or, as governments more recently have used it, to promote national fitness or social agendas on inclusion, equality, disability or against racism.  

It is not even - notwithstanding Danny Boyle's uplifting opening ceremony which offered a vision of modern Britain that felt at once familiar and fresh-viewed - about identity, though I smiled when natives of Yorkshire began to tweet that were God's own county to be regarded as a nation in its own right it would have been, at one point, seventh in the medals table ahead of Japan, South Africa and Australia.

No, it was about a celebration of something common to our collective humanity. National pride played a part in that when our athletes won more gold medals in any single day than they had since 1908. But there was something more universal and it was as much in the stories and the words of the competitors as in their physical prowess or mental achievements. Some, of course, were cocky and others self-absorbed but what was striking was the extent to which so many displayed extraordinary humility or magnanimity in victory and such grace and generosity in the face of defeat.

'If I can do it then anyone can do it,' said the Olympic rowing champion Helen Glover, 'not just rowing, anything. With hard work anyone can do anything.' We knew that what the schoolteacher from Caversham said was not literally true, for it was the first time any British women's team has ever won a rowing gold medal. But she spoke as Everywoman much as the long jump champion Greg Rutherford stood for Everyman with his long history of hamstring tears and the changed technique he innovated to combat that.

These were extraordinary people and yet deeply ordinary too - a man whose dad owned a pub in Norfolk, a young woman from a deprived background in Toxteth, a boy who arrived at the age of eight from east Africa and made his home in Feltham and a mixed-race girl from Sheffield whose mother was a social worker and dad a decorator from Jamaica who introduced her to athletics to stop her getting bored in the summer holidays.

Sport can exemplify a darker dark side in our culture, as shown by astronomically-paid footballers who can behave very badly both on and off the pitch. But this was a reminder that sport is also one of the areas of life where success is not measured in financial terms, and indeed where success is not necessarily the real measure of worth. Might Priscah Jeptoo, the Kenyan who came second in the women's marathon, have won more than silver had she not stopped near the end to get some water for a flagging team-mate? To our often vacuous no-effort-required celebrity culture the Olympics have offered a salutary antidote.  

Paul Vallely