One year on from Team GB what remains of Britain united?

In the run up to the London Olympics, Lord Coe maintained that the event last year would be a chance to exhibit Britain's incredible variety of cultures. To what extent was the true state of multiculturism exhibited in this country, and what purpose does sport have in terms of national identity?

Mark Perryman
8 July 2013

Flickr/Doug Wheller - some rights reserved

Editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us Mark Perryman reviews the Olympics’ legacy for Britain’s National Identity 

Central to debates on Britishness is the issue of race, usually framed around the issue of what is meant by multiculturalism. And multiculturalism was a key signifier that London, and Britain as a whole, were expected to represent in the 2012 Olympics. Many believe that London’s 2005 bid to host the Olympics bid was given the edge over the favourite, Paris, by Lord Seb Coe’s passionate promotion of London as a multicultural city, a home to the world. As the bid presentation ended in Singapore, Lord Coe introduced thirty youngsters on stage: “Each from East London, from the communities who will be touched most directly by our Games.” This was on 6th July 2005. The very next day London would be rocked by explosions on the London Underground and the bus system, in 7/7. The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more dramatic, with many, too many, blaming the atrocities on the very multiculturalism that Seb had been celebrating as a London virtue via the thirty star-struck youngsters beside him on the Singapore stage: “Thanks to London’s multicultural mix of 200 nations, they also represent the youth of the world. Their families have come from every continent. They practice every religion and faith.” 

A Summer of Discontents 

As writer on race and sport Dan Burdsey has memorably put it, apart from the athletes themselves, “You will often see a significant presence of minority ethnic people in the stadium; they will be directing you to your seat or serving your refreshments. The racialised historical antecedents and continuing legacy of these roles - entertaining or serving the white folk - should not be lost within the contemporary clamour of positivity.” While the likes of Jess and Mo on the track, Nicola in the ring and Louis on the pommel horse roused the nation, the low paid, mainly unskilled and temporary jobs London 2012 generated were disproportionately filled by the young ethnic minorities. Those with tickets in an Olympic Park at the epicentre of three of London’s most multicultural boroughs - Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney - were disproportionately white and therefore entirely unrepresentative of modern East London. This was the Home Counties Games, not London’s; white flight in reverse.

On the track, in the stands and in the park, the social divisions of modern Britain are as apparent as ever. Rushanara Ali, MP for the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency on the edge of the Olympic Park, described the post-Olympic mood amongst her constituents as one of ‘betrayal’. In place of employment and career opportunities created by the Olympics they were forced to endure amongst the highest jobless rates in the entire country, long-term adult unemployment rising by 26% in the year of London 2012, long-term youth unemployment rose by a staggering 55%. Rushanara quotes the Olympic mission, “London 2012 made us believe there is no limit to what we can achieve.” Of course, this is the magical appeal of the Games: its compelling narrative of those who succeed on the track, in the ring, pool and elsewhere. But too many from across the political spectrum and throughout the sporting and media establishment help perpetuate the cruel deception that either Team GB or London 2012’s success will have any kind of impact on the career and life chances for others.  

Union Jack Chic

For one joyful summer we wrapped ourselves in Stella McCartney’s stylishly redesigned Team GB Union Jack. It is a beacon of hope when that flag is worn to celebrate athletes whatever their colour, faith or gender, Olympian or Paralympian. Team GB was more a symbol of modern Britain than those who sit on the benches of Parliament, the seats of company boardrooms or at the desks writing the editorials in the nation’s newspapers. That is something we can all recognise, and most feel at ease with, with some seeing it as symbolic of the Britain we want to become. For others however, it is just a temporary respite from the effort to reverse this process. Multiculturalism is then only acceptable if it adds some finishing speed, fighting muscle and flair on the ball to Team GB. This is not the case if it means more immigration, from more countries further afield, as who knows where next? A Polish food counter in our supermarkets, a mosque down the High Street or event the Russian billionaires that own our football clubs and newspapers. The racialisation of Britishness is a complex matter, and the observation that Britishness remains racialised is entirely different from claiming it is racist. Sport can help unpick that complexity, offering moments of great hope and profound change yet it cannot affect that change on its own.

The United Colours of Britishness?


In the late 1980s writer Paul Gilroy wrote a superb book on race, popular culture and Britishness. He chose as his title, in a richly ironic manner, a favourite chant of the Far Right from the time, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Ben Carrington is one of a new generation of writers on race and Britishness. In his chapter in London 2012 How Was It For Us Ben  revisits the impact of last summer's Games to provide a neat twenty-first century update of Paul Gilroy's book title.

“The waving of the Union Jack during the opening and closing ceremonies and the heroic feats of humanity performed in between, produced moments when it’s hard to imagine there being a scenario when there is not some black in the Union Jack. Whether sport provides the beginnings for a wider transformative politics will be determined in large part by the extent to which we can prevent the summer feats of 2012 eclipsing the summer flames of 2011 so as to better understand the socio-political connections between the two.”

What Ben is describing is the ability to make connections between the political and the popular, and the role sport has in that process of connectivity. Race, Britishness and sport - in the summer of 2012 this was an everyday conversation for millions yet there remains a political absenteeism of ideals and values that can provide any lasting substance out of these golden moments. A year later and UKIP is on a platform that is both against immigration and viciously attacks the values of multiculturalism; this is the political story of 2013.

The greatest book ever written on sport remains to be Beyond a Boundary written by CLR James, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its publication in 2013. James was writing about the vital need to make the kind of connections that Ben Carrington was also describing a lifetime later. “What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows.” The proposition is that sport can only be understood, and its enjoyment enriched, by appreciating its social and cultural context. Sport matters to debates on national identity, because for many of us sport more than anything else provides us with that identity. 

Next Stop Glasgow 2014 

Which leaves us with a contradiction. Outside of the Olympics there is no Team GB. The great team sports of football and rugby fragmented Britain long ago, requiring none of the constitutional settlements the British state demands. And who apart from England will represent this United Kingdom at cricket against the Aussies all summer long? And in 2014 that separation will be further represented by Glasgow’s turn, as the Commonwealth Games take place. The timing couldn’t be neater with the Scottish independence referendum a matter of weeks later. When Hoy or Murray are winning Olympic Gold will it be the Scots or the Brits who care? But sport, as CLR James reminded us, isn’t disconnected. The flags we wave and the colours we wear represent something more than our support for the action on the track, in the pool, round the velodrome. This is the unique collision of an outdated Britishness; race, nation and independence. London 2012 can hardly claim to have settled the contradictions and conflicts, it is the task of remaking politics however to place connections and alliances at its core. This demands an understanding that it isn’t simply the case that a politics of sport exists, rather that for many, sport is politics.  

London 2012 How Was It For Us is published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others. Available as a pre-publication, exclusive Mark Steel signed edition, £2 off, just £12.99, and post-free from here

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