Britain created modern sport - why was this ignored in the Olympic Opening Ceremony asks ResPublica Associate Rafal Heydel-Mankoo
Much has been written about the opening ceremony of the
London 2012 Olympic Games, most of it overwhelmingly positive. On the whole, I
thought it was a tremendous success, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Of
course, it is impossible to please everyone and some aspects of it have been
criticised both at home and abroad. At home, many critics have complained,
rightly or wrongly, that several segments were marred by an overtly left-wing /
liberal bias (most notably the focus on the NHS). Abroad, critics have
expressed disappointment that so much of the production was bewildering and
mystifying to foreign audiences unfamiliar with various aspects of British
history and culture.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to cover popular
culture, and there is little point repeating what has already been written. However,
as much as I enjoyed the ceremony (and I certainly do not wish to appear unduly
negative - it was a great show) I thought it profoundly regrettable that the
organisers did not seize upon this unique opportunity to highlight what, in the
context of the Olympics, should have been the most obvious and relevant British
achievement: the creation of modern sport.
Sport is as much a part of Britain's contribution to global
civilisation as the English language, parliament, the common law and the
industrial revolution. In their modern forms, football, boxing, tennis, golf,
cricket, rugby, field hockey, ice hockey, baseball, table tennis, netball,
rounders, modern polo, bowls, curling, snooker and darts were either created or
codified by the British. Britain also created the Paralympic games.
With an almost missionary zeal, the British spread these sports
and the general concept of sportsmanship and organised sport as competition and
pastime, throughout the British Empire and, subsequently, the wider world.
Britain may no longer excel or lead the world in actually winning many of these
sports, but no country on the face of the earth has made a greater contribution
to the world of modern sport.
The opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is intended in
part to focus upon the ideals of the Olympic spirit. How strange, then, that
the unique opportunity to celebrate this remarkable British legacy in front of
a global audience was ignored. I wager that most citizens of the world, many of
whom are no doubt largely ignorant of the extent of Britain's contribution,
would have found this enduring legacy considerably more interesting and
relevant than the curious focus upon a subject as parochial as the National
The great Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World
Wide Web, made a splendid cameo appearance in the opening ceremony. He famously
gave his invention to the world for free, and the organisers acknowledged this
by spelling out the phrase "THIS IS FOR EVERYONE" in LCD lights
across half of the stadium. It was a tremendous piece of theatre but I could
not help but reflect that the same phrase could have been used in reference to
the British gift of sport.
In the end, it fell upon an outsider, Count Jacques Rogge,
President of the International Olympic Committee, to point out in his speech
the fact which should have been a key component of the ceremony:
"In a sense, the Olympic Games are coming home tonight.
This great, sports-loving country is widely recognized as the birthplace of
modern sport. It was here that the concepts of sportsmanship and fair play were
first codified into clear rules and regulations. It was here that sport was
included as an educational tool in the school curriculum.
"The British approach to sport had a profound influence
on Pierre de Coubertin, our founder, as he developed the modern Olympic movement
at the close of the 19th century."
As much as I enjoyed the spectacular opening ceremony for
the world's greatest sporting event, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of
regret at this missed opportunity to celebrate Britain's unique and unequalled
contribution to the very subject which is the focus of the Olympics.
A version of this blog was originally published here.