Aidan Smith: Chris Hoy shouldn’t expect sport to cure our divisions

Britain's flagbearer Chris Hoy at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Picture: Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's flagbearer Chris Hoy at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Picture: Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images
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Remember how it all began: the Buck House visitor striding briskly along the long gilt and regal red corridor, swooning Corgis scampering behind him, then being shown into the morning room. At the writing bureau, seen from the back, was a little grey-haired woman. Surely it couldn’t be her!

I mean, The Queen doesn’t pop up on the BBC, playing herself, the way Beeb newsreaders clamour to do it in the corporation’s dramas. She’s not like a middle-order presenter from the Breakfast show who’d kill for a spot on Strictly Come Dancing. The old dear was bound to be that HRH impersonator, just wait.

Then she turned round. “Good evening, Mr Bond.” Daniel Craig was slow to reply “Good evening, Your Majesty” and may have to wait for his knighthood as a result, but this was possibly because he was just as stunned as the billion-strong telly audience. And then we were off. The greatest show on earth had begun.

Was the 2012 London Olympics really the greatest show? We all thought so at the time. And Sir Chris Hoy still thinks that now. So much so that he despairs about what we’ve lost in the intervening years.

“It’s sad because that was seven years ago and look at our country now and look at our country then,” he said in an interview with Motor Sport magazine.

“We were so united and there was such a feeling of ‘Look what we can achieve and isn’t this great?’ It was such a wonderful time … I would wake up, open my curtains and see thousands of people flooding into the Olympic Park. It is sad when you 
think that in such a short space of time the country [has become] so divided.”

Sir Chris, pictured, didn’t go into detail about these divisions but we all know what they are. Big, bad Brexit squats on the top step of the podium like a humongously-proportioned wrestler from the Ancient Games, dominating, dividing, crushing. You can sympathise with his view but 2012 just wasn’t going to transform us into shiny, happy people, never mouthing another cross word to each other until the end of time, and frankly he’s a bit naive to think it ever would have done.

Sport can do many things but it can’t stop a Prime Minister – possibly from the party Sir Chris supports – hastily calling a criminally ill-conceived, back-of-napkin referendum for the entirely self-seeking reason of mollifying a bunch of MPs from the nutter tendency so they wouldn’t defect to Ukip. As Nigel Farage admitted the other day, his key strategy had been to “frighten the life” out of the Tories, adding: “I drove David Cameron mad.”

Sport can bring a septic isle together, as it did in 2012, but we were never going to snuggle under one gargantuan red, white and blue official souvenir duvet for ever. Sport can thrill and enrapture. It can get my kids mimicking the Mobot and lightning-bolt celebrations of the track superstars everywhere they go while being weirdly hypnotised by the slow, sepulchral routines of weightlifters before the grasping of the bar. But the feeling doesn’t last. And this was only the Olympics.

I’ve always been amused by the quip that Wimbledon is a two-week sporting festival for people who don’t actually like sport. I mean, I think we like sport, but not in the way the Australians like sport. In that vast land you could pose the question “What’s the national sport?” and the reply would come back: “Winning.” And all across America baseball and gridiron are part of the national conversation, involving professors and presidents as well as regular Joes and Hicksville Hanks. When a British politician tries to pretend that despite being educated at Fettes or Eton he’s really a man of the people who knows about football, it’s invariably a PR blooper (viz Cameron getting mixed up over whether he “supported” Aston Villa or those other chaps in the claret and blue, West Hampton United or somesuch).

Who among us thought the London Olympics were going to be brilliant? If you heard Boris Johnson, then London’s mayor, outline the city’s intentions for the spectacular at the Beijing Games of 2008 you might 
have winced. “Ping pong’s coming home,” he told his Chinese audience. The game was invented on the dining tables of Victorian England and was originally called whiff-whaff. Virtually every modern Olympic sport was invented or codified by the British, he said, except for pankration, a mixture of wrestling and boxing. Its chief exponent was Milo of Croton “whose signature performance involved carrying an ox the length of the stadium, killing it with his bare hands and eating it”.

Actually, you might have winced and laughed, for Boris can be funny when he’s not being conniving and idiotic. And in a way his speech was a taster for London’s opening ceremony, the bonkers, best-of-British panoply assembled with flair and love by the filmmaker Danny Boyle, of which the New York Times said: “Hilariously quirky, a wild jumble of the conventional, the eccentric and the frankly off-the-wall … Britain was presented to the world as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.”

The ceremony was the best thing about those Olympics, what we all remember. Before the Games there were concerns about the weather and the transport (very British) but everything turned out fine. And then the running and jumping was over and the buzzword – exploited mercilessly by the mockumentary Twenty Twelve – was “legacy”. Except participation in sport, which rose for a bit, has dropped again and obesity levels are higher than ever.

Sir Chris’s sadness should be reserved for what the Olympics didn’t do for the nation’s health and wellbeing. A great sporting event is not going to alter a nation’s psyche for the better. Politicians will always use sport and do in their grannies to get what they want. And 2012 wasn’t all golden, you know. There were floods and banking scandals and that was the year of racial abuse from England’s football captain and the terrible truth about Jimmy Savile.