From medal haul to long haul


Among my obsessions in the last fortnight have been the Olympics and Cultural Theory. The latter is the idea – which will feature in my annual lecture in September - that there are three active, and one passive, ways of seeing and exercising social power; respectively: hierarchy, egalitarianism (I prefer to talk about solidarity), individualism and fatalism.

So I was fascinated yesterday to read this paragraph in Will Hutton’s Observer column exploring the combination of factors that delivered such a successful Olympic Games:

‘ Not only do we need to sustain these principles so they become structurally and culturally embedded for continuing Olympic success, but they should also be applied elsewhere. The problem is that they are born of an ideological hybrid that wrong-foots our political class. They are mostly rooted in liberal social democratic values that understand the importance of public investment, public organisation and institution-building. But they also involve an unashamed recognition that in the end individual application, resolve and will to win are indispensable’

I would describe the mix slightly differently to Will, putting more emphasis on solidaristic elements such as the Olympic spirit, nationalistic public enthusiasm and the volunteer army. But there is certainly a case to be made for the Olympics as an example of what cultural theorists call clumsy solutions (one which combines the best aspects of hierarchy, solidarity and individualism). It shows that such solutions, like good designs, are as apt to emerge from adaptation and accident as through being deliberately planned that way.

Making the case for more active industrial policy, Will goes on to argue that we should apply the same mix of principles to the British economy. I have no problem with this but we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties involved.

Once the money had been committed and the organisation put in place, the Olympics brought with it massive public engagement (although as the grim experience of Atlanta showed, this isn’t always the case) as well as the individual effort and ambition involved in competing for medals.

To pick on one problem with the carry over to the economy: I once heard it said that if Bill Gates had been British he might have turned out to be the most successful software entrepreneur in Basingstoke. The point being that British businesses find it very difficult to move from being moderately successful to becoming global brands. This may be partly about the size of our market, but many argue it is also about a lack of ambition: British entrepreneurs are too happy to sell off their company and retire early to a life of suburban luxury.

If our Olympians had the same mentality many fewer of them would already be talking about Rio 2016 and Chris Hoy and Ben Ainslie would have spent the last two weeks chatting to Clare Balding and Gary Lineker and the previous four years making an easy living as after dinner speakers.

The point is – and this is a big theme in my planned speech – the ingredients for clumsy solutions are rarely just lying around waiting to be combined. Hierarchies can be dysfunctional, distrusted or both (they are not blessed with the resources of LOCOG), solidarity - where it exists – is as likely to be inward looking and suspicious of change as joyful and confident, and – as the last few weeks of the football transfer window will no doubt remind us – individualism is not often as closely aligned with the public interest as it was when Mo Farah fulfilled not only his dreams but the nation’s too.

The architects of London 2012 built a wonderful edifice on golden foundations. The British economy will have to rebuilt using less promising materials.

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