Brexit Backlash: the symbolism of Britain's Olympic medal success

I was interviewed this week for Finnish national television news. The journalist wanted to know what lessons Rio ought to have learned from London about how to stage an Olympic Games and plan an Olympic legacy for the host city. The interview was quick, nothing unusual about that, but what happened next surprised me: I asked the journalist how he felt about London's Olympic legacy and what followed was a conversation more interesting than the one we filmed. 

It took no time at all to explain during the filmed interview that compared to previous host cities, like Athens, and now Rio, London has done exceptionally well to take seriously the opportunity of The Games to create a positive global image for itself, reconfigure the city - directing attention , growth and investment towards East London - and attempt to harness that commercial imperative to the promise to deliver benefit to the population living locally to the Olympic Park. I explained that this does not mean that London could not have done better or does not itself still have lessons to learn. Part of the challenge of planning a new urban future is how to undertake the task of imagining and bringing into being a new reality whilst also integrating the past. East London has many challenges to face in this respect especially when the local political desire for 'aspirational' housing in the Olympic Park is at odds with a local population facing serious overcrowding, a lack of affordable housing and a diminishing access to social housing.

After the interview, over coffee at the View Tube Cafe overlooking the Olympic Stadium, whose exterior, as we spoke, was being dressed for West Ham's first game in their new home ground, the journalist shared his views. He had been sent to London for a year in 2011 from Finland to cover the year's build up to the 2012 Games. He explained how pleasantly surprised he had been when, despite all the scepticism he had felt himself, and perceived locally and in London prior to the Olympics, the city and the nation suddenly got behind The Games after the success of the opening ceremony, the success of the athletes, and the feel-good factor of the mass volunteering programme. Compared to the relatively parochial and conservative atmosphere of Finland, and even Helsinki, the journalist said that he was completely inspired by the progressive, globally connected, multicultural society and city that London and Britain portrayed in the unfolding of London 2012. As a result, he decided to stay; he felt that this was the place to be, because it was clear to him that London was the 'capital of Europe'. Where else would a young European journalist in his thirties want to be?

Fast forward four years and another Olympic Games, and what this journalist wanted to talk to me about, off camera, was the betrayal of this progressive, global, outward looking, multicultural vision of society by the Brexit vote. What now, he wondered. Should he stay? What would become of London? No one he knew wanted to associate themselves with this new idea of Britain - this suddenly inward-looking, backward, and worse, racist nation. Maybe it was time to move to Berlin? Brexit was the very opposite of what London 2012 had created, which was a brand for London and a brand for Britain that put it at the very heart of European and global attention, and firmly in the minds of a generation of young people aspiring to be open to the world. Brexit was a betrayal of this brand, and, the journalist explained, a shocking betrayal of what Boris Johnson appeared to have stood for during his time as mayor of London. Most interesting was the journalist's determination to put the blame for this political catastrophe firmly at the feet of the Labour Party, which, he suggested, had completely failed, historically, to address the concerns of those Brexit voters in post-industrial Britain, and failed utterly, therefore, to bring those people on board with the vision of British society that London's 2012 Games stood for. 

In the face of the shock and dismay of Brexit deniers, like this young European journalist, the success in Rio of Britain's Olympic team acquires a special symbolism; their success stands for a progressive, outward-looking, multicultural vision of the nation that is in contrast to the imaginings of a populist right wing politics that is desperately attempting to reconfigure politics in terms of a new and culturally exclusive form of nationalism. This is why, despite the predictable scorn of the Olympophobes, like Sir Simon Jenkins, it is so important to celebrate the success of Team GB as they return home with their haul of medals - it is a moment for the nation to celebrate and for that national celebration to stand in defiance of the doom and gloom, which has been cast over us by the spectre of an alternate vision of society in which our multi-racial, multi-cultural, heroic cosmopolitanism is not something to be proud of.