It’s been like one of those parties you’re a bit reluctant to attend because it might be crass, embarrassing, or difficult to get to, only to find yourself confounded by the good time you had. For most Londoners—most Brits, actually—Monday was the morning after the night before, and we awoke with the same questions: “Oh my god, did we really do that?” and “Damn ... What do we do now?”
For the past 17 days, if TV ratings and venue attendance are anything to go by, the British nation has been transfixed by the spectacle of the London 2012 Olympics. On a train ride through the rural countryside this weekend, I found the entire crowded carriage was busy with sports chatter. Gone was the traditional alienated reticence: strangers were talking to strangers about their favorite moments so far. It’s been a wild ride, with eventually ecstatic press at home and rave reviews abroad. So if this hangover has left us feeling like victims, it’s as victims of our own success.
The last time Brits were so publicly bonded was the day after the successful Olympic bid was announced: July 7, 2005, when London was hit by the Underground 7/7 bomb attacks. Seven years previously, the country had lost its reputation for the stiff upper lip with the unprecedented displays around the funeral of Princess Diana. But the Olympics have brought a new emotion beyond shock and grief—a feeling so unfamiliar that it invariably made British athletes and spectators tear up whenever a medal was awarded. We’re not used to enthusiasm. We really don’t know how to cope with joy.
I spent the past three weeks as a volunteer reporter in the Olympic Village, and the rising roars from the Olympic Stadium, Velodrome, and basketball arena were audible from more than a mile away. The enthusiasm is actually measurable—a crowd at the boxing arena was clocked at 113.7 decibels, louder than a jumbo jet at takeoff. Part of this was pent-up relief. After seven years worrying about the cost of hosting the summer Games, the ticketing, the congestion, sponsorship, the security, and more, Mitt Romney turned up in the U.K. three weeks ago, shared those reservations, and became a lightning rod, discharging our cynicism into a familiar contempt of foreigners.
Then came Danny Boyle’s bizarre, bonkers, and mind-altering opening ceremony. It might have baffled foreign observers, but it pretty much unified the country with its eclectic mix of history and humor. This was no accident. The organizers had known for four years that they could not compete with the Beijing 2008 games in terms of power, numbers, or centralized expenditure, so they borrowed lots of suggestions from the Australians who organized Sydney 2000, and cannily played to our downbeat strengths: eccentricity, individuality, and humor.
This mixture of punk and pomp, skydiving monarchs and East End rap, was quickly taken up by Londoners, who can often be remote and unwelcoming to visitors. The usually sullen and overworked Underground staff at Stratford Station, the gateway to the Olympic Park, turned crowd control into a comedy routine: “Champions this way; losers can stay at home.” The transport system, usually heaving and problematic, seemed to work almost perfectly for once. Security—the biggest mobilization of personnel since World War II—was finally put in place without incident. Above that, the London Organising Committee managed to stage hundreds of events across the capital, in iconic but tricky locations, covered flawlessly by the BBC, without a hitch. The city looked beautiful, unrecognizable, especially when the sun eventually came out.
But the success in organization was also matched by results on the sports fields. Notwithstanding U.S. medal rankings (which, unlike every other country, gives no added weight to gold medals) Team GB came in third, ahead of Russia. Russian tweeters have pointed out that they would have won if all the countries of the former Soviet Union were included in their medal tally. But two can play at that post-imperial game—Brits would have beaten off the Soviets if their former colonies in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Jamaica were included. But that’s the point. For the first time I can remember, we didn’t play the post-imperial game.
The previous two London Olympics—1908 and 1948—are bookmarks in the rise and fall of the British Empire. For decades since, Britain has exercised its political resentments in the defeatism of the sporting field. So what if the German soccer team beat us on penalty shoot-outs, the Australians bowl us out at cricket, the New Zealanders trounce us at rugby? We taught them everything they know. We still had the best violent soccer hooligans and most virulent nationalist tabloid headlines. As the old soccer chant went, “Nobody likes us and we don’t care.”
That theme has definitely gone for good. When a Tory M.P. denounced the opening ceremony as “multicultural crap,” he was met with near universal rejection from right, left, and center. It was a bad Games for old-school resentment. Just after the opening spectacle, the Daily Mail tabloid ran an article claiming the depiction of a successful mixed-race British family was unrealistic. Then along came Jessica Ennis, the poster child of the team and with precisely such a background, to win a gold in the women’s heptathlon. As for the “plastic Brits” the Mail had griped about in the runup to the Games—a term meant to question whether athletes who had been born overseas were English enough to compete under the Union Jack—the Mail was forced to eat its words and picked out double gold medalist Mo Farah, "who fled to Britain from war-torn Somalia as a child" as "a fantastic role model ... for millions of young Britons of all walks of life."
This social shift in our perception of ourselves could have the longest-lasting legacy. For hundreds of years the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has been a multinational, multidenominational state, but often hid its own diversity in foreign adventures and acquisitions. Loss of empire—and particularly the arrival of former subjects from Asia and Africa—threatened to fracture that identity. Now with figures like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, this postcolonial world seems more of a source of strength rather than guilt or weakness. This could also have a direct impact on constitutional politics, especially with the chief minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, pushing for a referendum on independence for Scotland. Some of Team GB’s top medalists, such as the cyclist Sir Chris How and the tennis player Andy Murray, are Scottish, and they conspicuously draped themselves in the Union Jack when celebrating their wins. At a popular level, the Games were a powerful visual symbol of the benefits of a united team for those campaigning against the break-up of Great Britain.
On the other hand, the success of the Olympics could be arrogantly misused by English politicians. Already the lead writer of the best-selling tabloid, The Sun, has argued that the success of London 2012 proves Britain should leave the European Union. Nothing about the greatest show on earth changes the underlying political and economic realities of the U.K. Today, we’re still back in a double-dip recession, with growing youth unemployment, income inequality, overreliance on a dysfunctional financial sector, and a shaky coalition government.
Ah. That’s so reassuring. Back to bad news. Cynicism is so much more predictable and easier to deal with. As John Cleese’s controlling depressive character said in Michael Frayn’s movie Clockwork: "It's not the despair … I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.”
And that’s really the summary of the success of the last two weeks; not how we triumphed over other nations, but the way we triumphed over ourselves.