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After a Great British 2012, can the Olympic effect continue in 2013?

January 2013

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The Olympics and other events of 2012 reminded Britain of all the things we're good at — sporting spirit, broadcasting and getting stuck on zip wires. But can it last?
Stacey Knight

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New Britain has learnt a lot from the Games about its potential

Ah, bliss it was in that sporty summer dawn to be alive. Just six months ago, Olympic and Paralympic Games fever spread through Britain. Along with thousands of other freshly minted fans watching sports we barely understood, I roared myself hoarse supporting everything from cyclists in bum-crushing Lycra to dressage teams getting horses to prance equine polkas. One night, I did some political analysis on TV wearing a leotard. This is not an offer Economist journalists get very often.

As I walked to work in the weeks during the Games, complete strangers grinned and shared stories of the latest medals haul. A German friend, who considers me the product of a fog-ridden, emotionally repressed and stuffy nation, texted, 'I'm loving Britain right now.'

From the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, with its mixture of pride and crazy comedy — the Queen murmuring: 'Good evening, Mr Bond,' is surely the highlight of her entire reign — to the final uplifting throes of the Paralympic Games, Blighty was transformed. We sloughed off our skin of cynical grumpiness. We cheered, we winced and when it got impossibly exciting, we even spoke to one another on the Tube.

Some dreary souls predicted the elation would sag as soon as the world's athletes headed back through Terminal 5. But it hasn't been like this. True, we cannot live in a perpetual bubble of joy. The Chancellor is doubtless pleased the whole expensive shebang is over. We all have to go back to working our way out of difficult economic times: a middle-sized country encountering stiff competition in an interconnected world.

But I don't think the Olympic effect was purely evanescent. We were reminded that we are rather good at a lot of things: from event organising to marketing, entertainment, broadcasting, logistics and getting Boris Johnson, London's mayor, stuck on a zip wire.

We saw that when we pull together, take risks and make commitments, we can do things the rest of the world rather likes. The notion that we are congenitally incapable of pulling off success has, thankfully, withered. We have got a bit better at celebrating ourselves: an art we had neglected.

So when Andy Murray won the US Open (finally!), we stopped dissecting whether he was cheerful enough and just marvelled that a Brit had brought home a major tennis trophy. We like winning the pub quiz by remembering that the man who first proposed the Higgs boson 'God particle' was a Brit. Perhaps the Games and the determination of the participants have given us a bit more confidence to urge our children to aim high.

We've seen deep national mourning on the death of Diana and giddy national celebration when we've won the Ashes or the football. What we haven't seen, probably since the Coronation in 1953, was an event that left both warm memories and the challenging sense of a new chapter opening. 

When you have held your breath to watch Mo Farah, a Somali-born immigrant, bursting over the finish line to gold, you get a rush of hope that our diverse society can overcome its fears and divisions. New Britain has learnt a lot from the Olympic and Paralympic Games about its potential in 2013 and beyond. I started out thinking it was all about sport. Now I know it's all about us. 

Anne McElvoy is a journalist with The Economist and contributed to The World in 2013 edition.

Posted by Anne McElvoy



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