Beware the Gods of Olympus
Whatever you do, don't utter the proverbial, 'It's only a game'. If you listen to politicians and administrators, the Olympics are the most important thing to happen to London, indeed the nation, in a generation. It's about national morale and a major business venture. Sport has become socially, politically and economically useful.
But the affective power of sport is usually greater than the effective power of sport. As it happens, no recent summer games have produced proven significant economic benefits to the host city or country. Research also suggests it's unlikely that the games will yield any increase in sports participation.
As for the claim that sport can make us better people, the evidence is that more often than not it correlates with anti-social behaviour. And as much as it brings people together, sport can also provide a patina of legitimacy for authoritarian regimes (e.g., Bahrain Grand Prix) or another venue for deep divides to be revealed, with athletes from some countries kept away from others in secluded areas.
So why do we indulge these sporting myths? There are, perhaps, two reasons.
First, a distorted Protestant work ethic continues to write itself large across our culture. Every human practice, we think, has to demonstrate its utility to justify itself. As historian Christopher Lasch says: 'The degradation of sport... consists not in its being taken too seriously but in its subjection to some ulterior purpose, such as profit-making, patriotism, moral training, or the pursuit of health.' Sport used to belong to the domain of leisure. Now it has been turned into work. We've managed to make it less fun than it should be.
Second, sport has begun to overtake us. For some Londoners, this has literally become the case with the building of the sport-industrial complex, and anxieties about certain freedoms being curtailed. The theologian Karl Barth placed sport - along with fashion and transport - amongst those powers of human creativity which threaten to overcome and enslave as much as liberate. Care must be taken that we do not become subject to their law, and their power, which we have released.
Rightly the Olympics will provide many opportunities for connection and celebration. But we will do well to value sport for its intrinsic worth and reclaim it for the common good rather than reduce it to a tool of politics or economics.
Enjoy the games, but don't believe the hype.
Paul Bickley is the Director of Political Programme for Theos and co-author of the Theos report Give us our Ball Back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good (2012), which explores more fully the issues raised above.
Paul Bickley and Sam Tomlin, Give us our Ball Back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good (Theos, 2012)
Christopher Lasch, 'The Corruption of Sports', The New York Review of Books (28 April 1977)
More Than Gold - Church outreach initiative for the Olympics