The Olympic Games have never much appealed to me, either as a spectacle or as a barometer of the well-being of the participating nations. Even so, it is hard to ignore Britain’s stellar performances in Rio, if only because the newspapers are writing of little else these days.
At the time of writing, Britain stands second in the gold medal table, behind the United States and ahead of China and Russia. That is no mean achievement, I must concede, even as I fail to subscribe to the mistaken notion that Britain is a small country that is now punching – or running, or rowing, or cycling – above its weight. All power, I say, to the athletes who have taken us to these giddy heights.
Anxious to introduce some kind of perspective, a Finnish friend has written to point out that his small country has won more gold medals per capita than any other nation on earth. I take his word for it, and refrain from pointing out that the same might be said of, say, Bahrain or Mozambique, but his point is taken. I well remember, as he apparently does, past Olympics in which British gold medals were so few and far between that the count rarely exercised the fingers of a second hand. In Atlanta, I seem to recall, we managed just one.
Fleet Street naturally has responded to Britain’s sporting triumphs with unrestrained patriotic joy, and for two perfectly understandable reasons other than tabloid jingoism. First, there is little in the way of news in these dog days of August to compete for our attention (for which we may be thankful). Second, the Games have provided a welcome distraction from the political divisions and economic uncertainties of the post-referendum period.
If there is a third reason, it is the opportunity to blow nationalistic shofars to herald evidence that Britain, in totting up gold and silver medals in sports to which few readers otherwise pay much attention, some of them as permanently mystifying as they are temporarily exhilarating, is still a Great Nation. I would not go that far. Britain may be a great nation, or not, according to one’s ingrained views on such matters, but prowess in the sporting arenas is not how greatness is measured; it is merely a welcome distraction from the cares engendered by acts of terrorism, or the future course of the economy, or indeed the political well-being of the ‘Great Britain’ under whose endangered flag the athletes are competing.
Still, it does not pay to sound churlish at a time like this, and like most of my compatriots, I have found myself urging on ‘our’ boys and girls from my television-viewing perch, hard-pressed to dismiss what I’m watching as nothing but weirdly incomprehensible fripperies in which normally I would have not the slightest interest.
So, I say well done to Team GB, and keep those medals coming. We will all be brought back to the real world soon enough.