Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Britain goes for gold

I enjoyed an article this morning in the Wall Street Journal, "The Return of the British Empire."

Great Britain came home from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with just one gold medal—two fewer than Kazakhstan—and a wounded national psyche. Sixteen years later, Team GB has been overhauled and rebuilt thanks to a machine-like agency flush with cash from the U.K. lottery that grooms British athletes. The result could be a record-setting performance here for the home squad.
An organisation called Sport UK has set its sights on mowing down the opposition.
"This is not about taking part. It's about winning," said Liz Nicholl, chief executive of U.K. Sport, the agency tasked with winning Olympic medals for Britain.
This is pretty different to the usual British attitude of hapless enthusiasm for the underdog and the jolly good try, all packaged in well-mannered sportsmanship. There again, this time Brits are on their home field. Goldman Sachs & Co. calculates that this advantage could net 54% more medals as a result, and that Britain could win more gold medals than Russia this summer--putting it third on the medal league table overall.

I admit, I would enjoy that.

I was born in the second half of the twentieth-century, long after the British Empire's sun had set. As an adult, I understand that this is a Good Thing. Colonialism bad, equality good, etc. But as a kid, I grew up among people who openly mourned British greatness, who pointed to world maps and said, That used to be ours. Or They speak English there--a funny kind of English, but at least they understand about the rule of law. Or Oh, that country will turn out alright; after all, we founded it.

Somewhere in my DNA I think it's cool that the Queen is the head of state rather than some grubby little elected person. Yet I'm simultaneously smug that we have those elected people. (Yes, the formed-in-childhood-by-Rudyard-Kipling-Winston-Churchill-and-TV-histories-full-of-Pathé-newsreels interior voice sometimes talks like that. Don't worry, I'm aware of its attitudes and don't act from them. Mostly.)

Liz Nicholl sounds...straightforward. "Our no-compromise approach says we're not going to compromise."

Fair enough. I don't have a quarrel with that. Not exactly. But it's not very, well, British. It's much closer to the American approach: play within the letter of the law, not its spirit, and throw a lot of money at it. It's not that I have a quarrel with that, exactly, either. Nor am I about to maunder on about returning to the original spirit of the Olympics. If my understanding of history is correct, I wouldn't have enjoyed that much at all: the only women allowed near the Games were oracles and prostitutes. Besides, even back then, athletes were pampered specialists.

No, my hope is that ten days from now, the athletes in the spotlight, honed and fined-down and trained to within an inch of their lives, who have sacrificed a decade or more of a rich, rounded life to be on that field or track or mat, get some joy from the moment. I hope it's worth it. And I hope the crowds cheer them all on generously.

And in nine days I'll be watching events, cheering at home in Seattle for Team GB. Because, yeah, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, I still believe my small country is mighty. Great, in fact.
This blog has moved. My blog now lives here: