IT’S fitting that the Olympic flame, which passed through the City yesterday, is lit in Olympia by focusing the sun’s rays in a mirror. The modern Games is a mirror of nations, in which the host nation and its guests reveal themselves to the world.
Take the torch relay. For the Nazis, who ran the first relay in 1936, it was a statement of imperial intent. The flame crossed Czechoslovakia like a dog marking its territory. For Britain’s latest Games, the same symbol is instead a beacon of both a peaceful ideal and more local anxieties, criss-crossing the length and breadth of our small island, in an effort to bring a spirit of national unity to a Games centred on London.
Making sense of the pictures that the Olympics reveals also requires discernment in its spectators. Beijing’s spectacular opening ceremony in 2008 was a propaganda coup for the state capitalists, and widely acclaimed. But its strengths were also a display of China’s weaknesses – its commitment to central direction, a cultural pride that looks inward rather than outward for solutions, and a willingness to use technology to censor reality for effect. Boris Johnson’s pomposity-puncturing appearance at the closing ceremony in a Routemaster bus was criticised at the time, but it offered a refreshing contrast to the authoritarian humourlessness of the hosts.
The Olympics is a revealing time precisely because it is not what is said but what is done that counts: the humiliation of would-be Aryan supermen by Jesse Owens in 1936 spoke louder than a thousand Nazi broadcasts; Greece’s mad 2004 dash to complete its infrastructure in time exposed a national ambition out of sync with economic realities. Yesterday, David Cameron tried to project a picture of Britain as an exciting place for the world to invest, launching the UKTI British Business Embassy. It’s an important message, but in the wake of Wednesday’s disastrous GDP figures, it was hard for the Prime Minister not to sound a little desperate. We cannot expect fine words to cover for the absence of the actions that would really matter – such as liberalising employment laws and lowering the barriers to private investment in infrastructure.
Yet this moment of celebration is no moment to be downbeat. Britain has much to be proud of as it hosts the world for this summer’s Games. The land of Shakespeare, Darwin and Newton, of Wedgwood, Lever and Brunel, is still a cultural, scientific and commercial powerhouse. In recent days, the world has seen one reason why: in a spontaneous rebellion against the more overbearing actions of the Olympics brand police, a free people has resisted being told what to do, with laughter at the very idea. Tonight’s opening ceremony will present a more formal image of the nation to the planet. We should hope, not just for grandeur and mastery, but a celebration of our greatest strengths: individual freedom, openness to the world and the saving wit that has long been our bulwark against the deadening arrogance of authority.