The Games have shown that Australia can be petty in its passions.
The post-Olympic withdrawal symptoms that Australians usually experience may well be less pronounced this year. This time, our more modest return of medals means there is no lingering collective euphoria. Rather, the past two weeks seem to have prompted much soul-searching.
Australia isn’t the only nation that likes to keep its eye on the medal tally – or that judges itself against the success of other nations.
The modern Olympics has, for much of its history, been a civilised pageant of national competitiveness. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Better that national rivalries get played out in sport than in war.
Indeed, the continuing power of the Olympics reminds us that for all of our talk about an increasingly borderless, global world, national differences still count.
Many cosmopolitans in our midst would have secretly enjoyed watching their countrymen and women doing well. Most of us still delight in national sporting success, even if we don’t believe that a country’s worth is determined by its position on the medal tally.
Here’s the thing. Feelings of patriotism needn’t spill over into mindless belligerence. We should reserve charges of jingoism to genuine cases. Channel Nine’s programmers and commentators may have been unbearably parochial, but their crimes aren’t of the same order as thugs declaring their ”Aussie” pride during the Cronulla riots of 2005.
In any case, the Olympics more often than not are occasions for patriotic goodwill, for participating countries to demonstrate the best of their natures.
There has been much of this on display in London. Britain has shone as a host to the world. The Games have seen a more confident Britain emerge, aided by the strong performance of Team GB.
But more than anything else, Danny Boyle’s charming and authentic opening ceremony set the tone. Here was a Britain possessed with wit, humour and self-deprecation. One that finally seemed comfortable in its own post-imperial skin. A mature Britain acknowledging the multitude of voices within its borders – those not only of the nations within the union, but also of its increasingly diverse population.
”Be not afeard: the isle is full of noises,” as Kenneth Branagh proclaimed in the Olympic Stadium.
The opening ceremony also served to underscore that Britain remains an ongoing project; it is still working towards that New Jerusalem. This might just be the cultural legacy of these Olympics: equipping Britain with a new confidence and an ability to speak about itself, to itself.
All this points to one reason the Olympics have the ability to command our attention and provoke our thought. They help us to understand our societies and ourselves. The Olympic cauldron is also a revealing source of national self-expression.
At these Games, we haven’t seen the best of Australia, and in more ways than one.
The past fortnight or so has shown us to be a nation that can be petty in its passions. How absurd that the mainstream media were so consumed by the question of swimmer Leisel Jones’ weight. How bizarre that the preponderance of silver medals provoked such a pervasive sense of inadequacy.
This is what happens when we believe that Australian culture is so fundamentally defined by sport. It can distort our priorities and destroy our perspective.
Forget about where Australia sits on the medal tally. Look instead at where it finishes on the United Nations Human Development Index rankings or the OECD’s economic growth tables.
That said, there are likely to be calls from the Olympic lobby for a boost in government subsidies for elite sport. No good government should succumb to such self-serving demands. Elite sport already gets its fair share; more money has been spent on this Olympic campaign than any previously. Meanwhile, worthy causes such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme remain in need of funds.
London also tells us another thing. The instructive power of sport lies, of course, in how contests can reveal something about the character of its participants. Obstacles and adversity bring out our true essence.
For Australia, London 2012 may just have said something about the rise of a cocky and complacent nation – which has forgotten the role of luck in life. It was once the mark of the national character that we were a laconic and resilient people. London highlights that we may have become a braggart nation that can’t always walk the walk.
Swimmer James Magnussen, in almost epic fashion, has come to represent the disappointed hopes and expectations of a nation. It is an unfortunate burden for him to carry. But it seems apt.
In the aftermath of his now infamous 4 x 100m freestyle relay race, Magnussen said: ”I’ve learned more about myself in the last two days than I have in the last 20 years.” In similar vein, London may have revealed more about us as a nation than those past few golden Olympiads combined.