As in all Olympics, two competing and, at times, compelling narratives are now well in play. The first is about national teams competing with one another to amass the biggest haul of medals they can muster. The other is about individual sportsmen and women striving to surpass past performance and, for the fortunate few, to step up onto a podium and see bronze, silver or gold hung around their necks.
This time, flags aloft, into the wee small hours of that first Friday evening, two hundred and four teams paraded, in succession, into the stadium in Stratford East. Some were from places I would have struggled to locate on any globe. There were even four stateless individuals marching behind the Olympic emblem. I recall reading later that three of them have already sought asylum here.
Before the games started everyone knew just two of the teams entering that stadium would end up contesting the national virility aspects of these Games. Predictably, after week one, China and the United States already dominate the medals table. If success is measured by the sheer scale of your talent pool and the amount of money you are prepared to invest in sporting success, how could it be any other way?
The vast majority of participating nations will leave empty handed. Some aspirant nation states aren’t even there in their own right. There is no Team Scotland. Just Team GB. How the people of Northern Ireland, already with three medal winners in rowing, feel about the territorial slight implicit in that nomenclature, I do not know. I do know the SNP would love to have seen a Team Scotland take its own place in London. And it is pledged to make sure that is what happens in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, if an independence mandate can be secured first.
The other narrative is about exceptional sporting achievement. For the most part, individual prowess. But not exclusively so. In a growing number of sports, and in some of those where people on these islands, including Scots, already excel, Olympic success depends on seamless teamwork. In cycling, canoe slalom and rowing, for instance, Scots men and women have already claimed gold. But have done so in at-times-surprising collaborations with others.
I watched, through the tension and the tears, as Sir Chris Hoy secured his remarkable fifth gold medal in track cycling, in the men’s team sprint final. But even Hoy couldn’t have broken the world record twice, in quick succession, without the exceptional performances of the two other riders in that team, Jason Kenny and Philip Hindes.
Nineteen-year-old Hindes, a relative newcomer to the team, led off faster in each round than he’s ever ridden before. In the heats, he had tumbled off his bike at the very start of the race. How could he recover his poise? But he did. And when, after gold had been secured, he told the BBC he “did it on purpose to get a restart”, we all wondered whether, like the Team GB and Chinese cyclists in the equivalent women’s event, Hoy’s team would be disqualified. The Scot’s face was certainly a picture as Hindes owned up.
The women’s offence was for the finisher to overtake the pace-maker marginally too early on the circuit. The only marker is a strip of tape on the velodrome track. You’re flying. But jump that tape early and you’re out. There were claims from Team GB that young Hindes’s explanation of his crash had been “lost in translation”. His explanation seemed perfectly clear to me. Relegation if you miss a decidedly low-tech overtaking rule. No action if you engineer a crash. Looks like the blazers in cycling should be reviewing their rule book.
That comment about the young male rider’s grasp of English alerted me to the fact that he might just as easily have been competing for a rival national team. Son of a British father and German mother, Hindes was born and educated in Germany, where his father was on military service. When he took up cycling he even represented Germany at junior level in international competitions. With dual citizenship, it was only in 2010 that he chose to come to Manchester and join the Team GB national cycling programme.
That is where Edinburgh-born Chris Hoy is also based. As is the third member of their team, Jason Kenny, who was born in nearby Bolton. It’s a similar, if less exotic story, with some of the other successful Team GB golden medallists. In the canoe slalom and in rowing, Scots shared their boats with partners from south of the Border and, in the main, base themselves where the major training centres are. Down there.
Even some solo performers are not quite what they seem. Team GB’s gold medallist in shooting, Peter Wilson, is a farmer’s son from Dorset. But when, in 2008, he lost his funding and his coach when UK Sport’s budget was cut, he went back to waiting in a pub. His shooting career was rescued by Sheik Ahmed Al Maktoum of Dubai, winner of gold in the same double trap shooting event in Athens in 2004. Wilson now spends a lot of his time in the Gulf, being trained by the man he calls his Dubai father.
I have no time for the tone of the campaign the Daily Mail has been running in recent months about so-called “plastic Brits” in Team GB, the runners and jumpers, wrestlers and basketball players turning out for Great Britain without any birth link to these islands. In the 1980s the same Daily Mail lobbied Margaret Thatcher relentlessly to have Zola Budd fast-tracked to British citizenship. These days not even athletes can get a British passport within a fortnight.
But across elite sport, not just at the Olympics, the links between competitors and the teams they are competing for are growing increasingly tenuous. About half England’s current cricket team were born in South Africa. Professional footballers in the top leagues and teams are increasingly footloose hired hands. Increasingly, top sporting talent is responding to the forces of globalisation.
These trends raise serious questions for Scotland, were independence to become a reality. We know the SNP wants to see Team Scotland appear in its own right in Brazil in 2016. Does that mean a future Chris Hoy can only compete in Men’s Team Sprint if everyone else on the team has Scottish citizenship? Or will social union with the rest of these islands, that kind of residual sense of Britishness the nationalist leadership now talks up, allow a future Hoy, Grainger, Baillie or Stanning to get on their bike or in their boat with the best of their peers, wherever they hail from on these islands?
And, since the National (sic!) Lottery has been so important in providing funding for the kind of sporting achievement we have seen in the last few days, is it the SNP’s intention that it will continue in its current form, as another plank of the social union with the rest of Britain? Or will we start a Scottish National Lottery, with fewer prizes and less money for sport?