The Olympics: Changing Attitudes

Now the thing has actually started there has been a noticeable shift in attitudes towards the Olympics.

Before it kicked off, those with left-leanings were being rather cynical about the ticketing, the commercialism and the flag-waving. Some on the right, meanwhile, were getting cross about all the nation-bashing and calling upon us all to be more patriotic.

Then three things happened. First, a Republican American politician insinuated that London wasn’t ready. This had people leaping to the UK’s defence. It’s one thing for us to be rude to be about the Olympics, it’s quite another when an American right winger does the same.

Then, the Opening Ceremony turned out to be rather good. It was patriotic in an abstract sort of way: proud but never over-the-top, exclusive or even serious. It was also vague, messy and fun enough for most people to like without having to worry too much about whether it represented them and the Britain they lived in.

The fact that it annoyed some on the right helped too. Ironically, it seems that some who were defending the Olympics out of a sense of national pride have now been turned off it because their vision of Britain isn’t the one that is now being articulated. I suspect it is those same people who are moaning about Welsh football players not singing the English/British anthem.

The presence of so many Welsh players in the football side, and their refusal to sing God Save the Queen, has even blunted a little of the resentment of some who object to a football TeamGB in the first place. Amidst all the symbols of Britishness everywhere, anthem-gate has at least reminded some of England that the UK is actually made up of four nations.

Finally, the actual sport has started. Watching sports that we’d never normally see (or care about) is strangely exotic and a distraction from worrying about what it all means and represents.  And thanks to endless digital streams from the BBC we don’t even have to just concentrate on the events the British are doing well in. Who knew handball was so much fun?

Of course, there are still things to moan about – notably the commercialism and the empty seats but at least it doesn’t appear that anyone has been chucked out for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt.

It would also be easier for some of us who are not English to be more positive if it was TeamUK not TeamGB. I’m quite happy to call myself British but I am far more comfortable with the idea of a United Kingdom rather than a Britain. The UK stresses diversity and it’s less associated with the Union Jack flag, a flag which does not have any representation on it of the part of the UK that I belong to.

Such concerns aside, the Olympics are still turning out to be rather fun.  Afterwards, we’ll worry again about the huge cost to the public purse and argue over the legacy. But, as long as we don’t expect the Olympics to fix either the economic and health problems of the UK, we might be able to look back and say it was worth it.

Sport in the Heritage of Wales

A short piece I wrote for Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service

Sport is a central part of the history and heritage of Wales. It has played an important role in the lives of individuals, communities and the nation.  Indeed, in a country lacking the more conventional markers and apparatus of nationhood, it could be argued that sport is one of the reasons why a strong sense of Welshness has survived in the modern era.

For many individuals sport was an important part of the routine of their lives.  It offered a physical and emotional escape from the drudgery and harsh realities of work and urban life.  Whether through watching rugby at the local stadium, playing football in a park, racing pigeons from an allotment or even just talking over the latest betting odds, sport offered people excitement, companionship and physical and intellectual stimulation. It also accorded people a sense of self-worth and importance, whether through their reputation as performers or through their ability to pass judgement on the performances of others.  Such rewards and pleasures could make life more tolerable and more meaningful.  They embedded sport in people’s routines and made it more than something people just did.

The importance individuals accorded sport combined to make sport a significant part of community life too.  Sporting grounds and facilities were important parts of local landscapes, places where people came together, turning collections of individuals into communities.  Locals assembled there, often in their thousands or even tens of thousands.  Even pub and park games could attract large crowds, as people came in search of free entertainment and to watch their friends and families represent their neighbourhoods.  Being part of those crowds enabled people to assert their local and civic pride.  Moreover, the larger sports grounds helped define the towns in which they stood.  They hosted clubs named after those towns and were known far beyond the immediate communities.  They were as much a civic space and physical symbol of those communities as any town hall, church or pub.

The strength and diversity of these communities contributed to Wales and Welshness having a plethora of different meanings.  Yet, however, Wales was defined, it would be difficult to deny sport’s place in the inventing, maintaining and projecting of the idea of a Welsh national identity in and outside of Wales’s blurred borders, even if the Wales that sport has projected has varied according to time, place and context.  Although the Welsh language, music and Nonconformity have also played their part, few other cultural forms are as well equipped as sport to express national identity.  Its emotions, national colours, emblems, songs and contests all make it a perfect vehicle through which collective ideas of nationhood can be expressed.  Rugby and football internationals in particular have mobilizedWales’s collective identities and passions.  They gloss over the different meanings that the people of  Wales attach to their nationality, enabling them to assert their Welshness in the face of internal division and the political, social and cultural shadow of England.  This put national sporting grounds at the heart of the nation.

Sport needs places to be played and its sites, ranging from national stadiums to pub bowling alleys, are part of the historic environment.  Many may not be unique or architecturally impressive but they mattered to the people who used and lived around them. Some have helped define the nation itself. All are part of our collective heritage.

Aerial shot of The Vetch Field, Swansea, 1959. A football ground clearly rooted in the surrounding community. 

Photograph copyright of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales