London 2012: Whose Legacy?

The Olympics have ended, but something more important has begun. It’s been mentioned on this website, and was even afforded a Newsnight special. No sooner had the flame gone out than a whole new competition began. Not the Paralympics – we have to wait for them – but the legacy debate. This spectacle followers some of our country’s main players as they attempt to siphon-off some of the transient political capital on offer following two weeks of unbridled media fawning.

Obviously this has been in the pipeline for months – and it’s not just the politicians (with David Bowie and Kate Bush doing their best to preserve theirs) – but only since the running, jumping, throwing, riding, doping, concluded did it seem appropriate to predict exactly how these Olympics would change us for the better.

And that’s just the mainstream media. On twitter such debates have merged seamlessly with triumphalist Daily Mail-bashing. Given that ‘plastic Brits’ played no small part in helping Team GB to its impressive total of 29 gold medals, there seems to be a growing consensus amongst political commentators that this effectively proves the likes of MP Aidan Burley wrong in his criticisms of ‘leftie’ ‘multi-cultural crap’.

Of this I’m not convinced.

By all means, Burley and the Mail should be criticised for their broad-brush approach to multiculturalism as ‘leftie’. This masks a deep disagreement on the issue that exists within – and indeed exceeds – the Left. But equally the ‘progressive’ twitterati are just as guilty for co-opting of the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis to suggest that the multicultural model is somehow inevitable as well as desirable.

Social commentator Kenan Malk would disagree, having contended that multiculturalism is problematic as it fails ‘to understand what is valuable about cultural diversity as lived experience’. Following economist Amartya Sen, he suggests that multiculturalism slips into ‘plural monoculturalism’ as cultures are simply reified and multiplied. Uncritical celebrations neglect that the importance of diversity lies ‘insofar as it opens people up to different experiences – not just relatively trivial ones like Indian take-away or South African jazz, but differences of values, beliefs and lifestyles’.

This is emblematic of the legacy debate. Instead of opening people up to differences, the Olympics are being touted as justifications for the values of our status quo.

The first of these is merit – a perennial problem in any social analysis of elite sport. We see American Dream-style rhetoric throughout reports of middle-distance runner Mo Farah’s victories. The Daily Telegraph (hardly known for its cultural openness) ran an in-depth piece charting Farah’s rise from refugee to national hero. After fleeing civil war in his youth, Farah moved to London to live with his father. Joining a ‘tough school’, Farah – we’re told – ‘had to learn to hold his own’. Indeed, his 10,000m gold was described as ‘proof of how far Farah has come’ since arriving in Britain having mastered only a handful of simple phrases. Our respect for him centres on his social, cultural, and – ultimately – physical mobility.

The message is clear: we live in a meritocracy, play the game and you might just win. Farah’s tale is made palatable to a sceptical audience. His success fits a common ideological trope; asylum seekers are OK, as long as they’re the fastest man in the World over 5000 and 10,000 meters.

But what about those left behind? What about those immigrants who don’t get lucky (particularly in their asylum appeals)? In the not-so-distant past, they would inevitably have come into contact with the undisputed villain of London 2012: G4S. One benefit of this firm’s very public self-implosion in failing to deliver contracted security at the Games is that light has been shone on the unnervingly extensive services that our Government has entrusted them with delivering (not least by a blog called ‘No to G4S’, set up by a Leeds Graduate).

One of these was forcible deportations, until this contract was also lost. This after the company narrowly avoided a charge of corporate manslaughter following the death of asylum seeker Jimmy Mubenga in their custody in October 2010. Not known for their humility, G4S retains links with the UK Border Agency, having successfully bid for a seven-year £211m contract more recently. Now they are (mis)managing the housing of refugees on our very doorstep.

These issues also give rise to questions of authenticity. David Cameron found fit to describe Farah as ‘a true British hero’, inviting questions as to who could be considered a ‘false’ British hero, or indeed what it means to be ‘truly’ British. This charm offensive coincided with the launch of his legacy programme, which previously consisted of little more than selling off school playing fields.

Cameron’s focus has since switched to the regulation of what sports are to be considered appropriate for primary school children. Here perhaps we gain an insight into what he means by truly British – the sport Farah excels in is both competitive and individualistic, not ‘like Indian dance or whatever, that you and I probably wouldn’t think of as sport’.

Although Indian Dance alone may be considered a ‘trivial’ approach to cultural diversification, it nevertheless points towards difference in values, beliefs and lifestyles. For Cameron, this renders the activity a non-sport; no weight is given to arguments that it could provide an outlet for self-expression, creativity and spirituality.

Unlike the mainstream and social media, I am wary of imposing a fixed identity onto any of our athletes. But whilst we’re onto spirituality, it is worth mentioning that Farah’s Muslim faith has been relatively underplayed. Perhaps this can be explained by an apparent Islamophobia in our media, never more evident than when the crimes of a group of Rochdale men convicted for their involvement in a child exploitation ring were variously linked to their religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, similar cultural slights were not forthcoming after a similar gang – this time predominantly white – was exposed in Derby only a couple of months later.

What these mainstream debates fail to acknowledge is that their search for Olympic values is effectively an exercise in ideological pick’n’mix. This grants our politicians too much leeway in shifting the parameters of debate. A perfect example of this can be found in the ‘legacy ambassador’ (and former Conservative MP) Seb Coe’s claims that the ‘whole nation’ has to get behind these values; or even stronger suggestions from everyone’s favourite Whac-A-Mole MP Jeremy Hunt that: ‘We have to change values, and we have to change ethos’. Absent this critical perspective, the transformation of multiculturalism into capitalist monoculturism is just about complete.

Author: Chris Dietz
Image: Daily Telegraph (Getty Images)

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