All this gold medal winning in Rio (or “medalling”to use commentator newspeak) is very confusing. Britain isn’t supposed to come first in things. We’re used to plucky-but-lovable no hopers, like Eddie the Eagle, who do their amateur best in face of the austere medal-winning machines of countries like Russia, Germany and China. But there we are, second on the Olympic medal table ahead of all three of those countries.
I say “we”, of course, but some will wish to disaggregate team GB into its national components. That would leave Scotland at 13th in the medal table with 12 medals so far, including of course that of Andy Murray the most insufferably brilliant tennis player in the world. With his unforced errors and his match-winning flourishes, watching Murray is like climbing up one of those metal ladders in the Alps: you always feel inches away from disaster.
Some Scottish nationalists will suspect there was a unionist plot behind getting Scotland’s greatest (current) sporting hero to carry the British flag at the opening ceremony in Rio. Murray, in shorts and a jacket that seemed too big for him, looked almost childishly proud carrying the Union Jack. A Team GB hostage. But I don’t think this was about demonstrating Britain remains united despite Brexit and the SNP. It was simply a recognition Murray has shown himself, since the 2012 Olympics, to be a natural team player, who seems to thrive on being part of something bigger than himself. The Davis Cup victory had more to do with it than unionist propaganda.
So is Scotland thriving in Rio as part of something bigger? Is the Olympics the last bastion of Better Together? The question hasn’t been asked this year, probably wisely, in the was it was back in 2012. After the success of the London Olympics, metropolitan commentators and unionist politicians in Scotland lost no time in proclaiming that a new Britishness had emerged to challenge the narrow nationalism of the SNP.
The New Statesman even credited the London Olympics with the birth a “new patriotism” which would confound the “secessionists”. The New Britain, an editorial opined, was a “complex, multinational and multi-ethnic and multicultural nation state…quite different from the hard defensive patriotism of the Little Englanders or some Scottish nationalists”. The new Britishness was summed up by the the Somalian immigrant, Mo Farah, becoming Britain’s greatest sporting hero.
It was all tosh of course. We’re out of Europe on a tide of anti-immigration rhetoric, and the SNP has never been stronger. London 2012 was followed, not by a reaffirmation of Britishness, but by the Scottish referendum, the tsunami election in which unionism was almost wiped out, and of course Brexit. It would take a brave commentator to be proclaiming either multiculturalism or a new British patriotism this time round. Danny Boyle’s inspired 2012 London Olympic opening pageant, with its dancing NHS nurses and proud industrial workers, seems in retrospect like a celebration of a Britain that no longer exists.
Surprisingly, the legacy of 2012 has not been a new patriotism but continuing sporting excellence. Surprising, because most of us probably thought British sport, after London, would sink back into amiable mediocrity. Countries that host the Olympics generally do well in them, rise to the occasion. But this year’s Rio Gold Rush looks even greater than 2012.
Team GB has gone from strength to strength – admittedly in carefully chosen events which require a different kind of athleticism from the conventional track and field: cycling, sailing, rowing, tennis, golf. Still, a gold is a gold, and it was extraordinary seeing a very ordinary Essex lad, Max Whitlock, winning two gymnastic gold medals in one day. The training networks and support mechanisms that have been built up over the last 20 years, UK-wide, look like an example of Britain working together. Though there is lingering resentment among many Scots that the money always seems to be spent south of the border.
Could it be that Team GB will have some kind of sporting afterlife, and not just as a quadrennial festival of sporting nostalgia? Could sport could be one arena in Scotland and England opt still to work together after independence? Or, like a star that’s coming to the end if its life, is this British brilliance merely the remaining energy being consumed in a final blast of light?