The coverage of Team GB’s successes in the 2016 Olympics makes a fascinating case example of a cultural shift from the legendary British stiff upper lip to an embrace of emotional reactions to change. It may also help understand the persistence of charismatic leaders and their unconditional acceptance by cult-like followers
My initial impetus for writing this post came from the BBC coverage of the remarkable successes of Team GB in the 2016 Olympic games.
The national broadcaster had gone for broke in deploying its stretched resources in delivering a spectacular media triumph. And on the running and cycling tracks, assorted other locations for battles on and in water, there were events every day in which members of team GB performed even above expectations which were already high after the London Olympics four years ago.
The results in Rio became a source of great national rejoicing. In general, the BBC coverage also received wide popular approval. Which makes me feel a curmudgeonly old fogy in taking a different stance on cultural implications of the great sporting event as evidenced by the BBC.
To explain my point, I trace what I believe to be a pattern of change in British cultural treatment of sport, with a few glimpses at cultural changes taking place in the wider globalising world.
I start with events in football from my distant childhood memory. It was a time in which Britain was in denial about the decline of the values of the great British Empire. Effortless superiority was typified on the football field whose modern form was ruled by England and its approaches as if by divine right brought by being English on a football field.
1950s: England Football humiliated
My mind went back to a night when England unexpectedly lost an International football match and were humiliated by a wonderful Hungarian team. Denial was very much the order of the day, and indeed the decade.
This was a time when we hadn’t quite realized that other countries were frequently beating us. But in those days reporting was dignified if somewhat bemused. We lost to a better team with clever tactics we would deal better with in future.
1966: England wins world cup
In 1966, the glory of winning the World Cup made the painful humiliation by Hungary feel an aberration. The English reaction was captured and then retained culturally by Wolfenholme’s crisp and celebrated remarks at the end of the World Cup match against Germany (who else?): ‘They think it’s all over. It is now’. Normal service was resumed.
Even as evidence mounted in football of the end to an era, England found comfort in national superiority over foreigners who got far too excited over success.
September 1981: Norway 2 England 1
The match is remembered today in England by a marvellous burst of joy at its finish from the Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien. A generation of schoolboys parodied his words (in translation which began ‘We beat you Maggie Thatcher’). English superiority over other races was again manifest in the excitability even of the normally restrained Scandinavians.
But the culture of the stiff upper lip was coming to an end. Some cultural theorists have given an important part to events surrounding the death of Princess Diana.
September 1997: Princess Diana’s Funeral
The tragic end of the Princess of Wales, and subsequent period of mourning was to mark a greater cultural acceptance of public displays of grief in the UK. During the service, one of Diana’s many friends among non-royal celebrities Elton John performed a rewritten song Candle in the wind which became the most popular single ever, by sales. The death of Diana and subsequent period of mourning was to mark a greater cultural acceptance of public displays of grief in the UK.
This has been associated with the efforts of Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a later interview with TheTelegraph, Blair indicated he manipulated the public mood in the interests of the nation, seeing Diana, like himself as manipulative. It is not particularly original for politicians to be characterized in this way. In leadership terms, Blair’s style was seen as part of a new Machiavellianism. it was largely approved of because of his political successes (by among others David Cameron, ‘heir to Blair’)
The 2000s: the social media revolution
The first decade of the new millennium. Culture change is significantly influenced by the increased influence of social media, as at least competing with mainstream media (MSM).
We learned more about web-based trolls, exploitation of self-exhibiting images, and redefined boundaries of social acceptability.
2010 and beyond
As often, emerging trends are first seen as originating in older ones. Politically Barack Obama had risen assisted by the harnessing of a generation of media savvy volunteer activists. His message of hope appealed powerfully to emotions, as has messages of charismatic leaders in the past. The message of hope was accompanied by its darker rejection.
August 2012: The London Olympics and the Gold Rush
What do you remember from London 2012? One often repeated event was the quirky Opening Ceremony which had the added advantage of baffling international spectators and media viewers. Olde England. NHS. James Bond. The Queen. The queen’s double parachuting into the stadium.
Then the gold rush. The Saturday of gold medals. With hindsight, the story (narrative) was gold. The memory of one miserable gold medal in Atlanta 1996 was forgotten, On that middle Saturday, an old cult revived: the gold standard and its worship.
2016 Brexit, Nigel and the Donald
Politics and culture are yolked together, as simplistic messages win increasing numbers of supporters. Charismatic figures around the world peddle the messages on behalf of right wing or left wing polarizations of more complex issues.
In Europe, Nigel Farage was able to win the monumental Brexit vote as more conventional politicians foundered, failing to match the emotional appeal of ‘don’t trust experts’. He was shortly after to share a platform another political figure of Donald Trump with consummate skills at eliminating rational doubts in the minds of supporters.
It would be over-simple to propose a theory of cultural change built on the behaviours of a few would-be political leaders. My point is to provide examples that the current social and political events have weakened the power of experts and elites. The social media’s vast churning of the social maelstrom whip up the emotion of the original messages, with scant attention of old-fashioned ideas of conscious attempts at rationality.
2016 Rio Grande Olympics: The apotheosis of hysteria
The BBC coverage of the 2016 Olympic Games has been on an unprecedented scale. Its shackles of financial restrictions were temporarily slipped, as the Corporation broke free and indulged in an outpouring of nationalistic emotions. Where once we mocked the emotional cultures of other nations, we now competed to excel even in the hysteria stakes.
Journalists were liberated from their customary roles. Jonathan Agnew, a gifted cricket commentator was sent to cover horse racing. Others more familiar with golf or rugby covered a range of events with minimal knowledge. “Doesn’t matter” one said, “you just need them to express their feelings of winning or losing.”
My memories of glorious athletic achievements were permanently soiled by a celebration of hysteria. The BBC (my main source of information) now prided itself as a prosumer of emotions, capturing the joy and anguish of the ordinary man and woman on the sofa. Capturing at the time, and then celebrating its own screaming incoherence by repeatedly playing back the standout examples.
The lonely curmudgeon
It took a contrarian writer such as Simon Jenkins of the Guardian [August 17 2016] to express such an unpopular view. His remarks were met with an overwhelmingly negative bunch of letters about him and his curmudgeonly ideas. One of the two letters published in his defence was from myself. A day later, I received a message from an old colleague and friend, half-jokingly suggesting I must be lonely for holding such perverse views.
As an attention-seeking and lonely curmudgeon, I welcome comments for or against my reflections expressed in this post.