Now that the fever of the London Olympic Games has passed, maybe we can draw breath and a few reasonable conclusions about the event.
1. Britain did superbly well – both in terms of organizing the Games and collecting medals. The sheer scale of the venture makes me weak at the knees but it was carried off with aplomb. And the BBC gave superb coverage.
2. Ireland did well – better than we’ve ever done. At the same time, the defeat of John Joe Nevin in the final was a let-down with which to end the Games. Mind you, a silver medal is hardly bad. But It’s a bit like that spin-the-wheel programme on RTÉ on a Saturday night: it’s great winning a bronze or silver, but the goodness gets at least partly sucked out of it when you think how close you came to getting the Big One.
3. China are a sporting force to be reckoned with. When Chinese athletes emerged a couple of Olympics ago, they were dismissed as cheats who used drugs to gain success. Not quite so much talk of that this time: at one point it looked as though they’d beat the US into second place on the medals count.
4. The Games’ organizers got very, very lucky with the weather. Remember the month before the Games? Downpour after downpour, until we forgot what the sun was, never mind what it looked like. Come the games, the TV cameras kept drinking in days and evenings of sun-kissed endeavour.
5. The British team is truly multi-ethnic – Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, their sprinters – a striking number seemed to come from a non-white background.
People like Robert McCrum in today’s Guardian see the games as giving people a pride in being British and part of a multi-ethnic, tolerant society. I expect many unionists would go with that: to be part of a society which integrates people from various backgrounds is indeed something to be proud of.
There is, though, an alternative perspective. This was kind of discussed on BBC TV with the great Michael Johnson, a former Olympic champion. He was asked if track events weren’t becoming the exclusive preserve of non-white athletes. Was it a gene thing? Johnston disagreed, argued it had more to do with training and motivation. If he's right, there's no case for arguing that the high number of non-white athletes on Team GB has to do with non-whites being naturally better athletes. It's more similar to the case of professional boxing: Afro-Americans and non-whites generally predominate because it’s one of the few avenues where they can compete on a level playing field, as it were. In fact, far from being a tribute to British society’s tolerance, the high number of non-white athletes on Team GB testifies to how tough it is for a non-white to succeed or even be accepted in other fields. One obvious example: while Britain was drooling over Jamaican Usain Bolt’s talents, those with Jamaican background in British society were still firmly stuck in the back of the bus.
I tend to think the alternative perspective is correct. British society from top to bottom is to a greater or lesser degree racist, not happily multi-ethnic. Bad as it is, though, it’s not as bad as Ireland. Here, we do A* racism.