Forget fuzzy togetherness – ruthless individualism should be our legacy
05 September 2008
Let us not panic. The news that Sebastian Coe is to launch the Cultural Olympiad by putting on his running shorts and sprinting through Tate Britain may not be encouraging. It might even justify fears that other desperate attempts to hobble art and sport together will follow: Tracey Emin doing the breast stroke at Tooting Bec Lido, Andrew Motion in a sonnet-reading race in the Albert Hall, Zara Phillips leading a three-day event team around a course of Damien Hirst sculptures.
But these are early days. Once he has done his Tate Britain run, Coe will be far too busy to bother about the cultural side of the Olympics with its piffling budget of £40 million. The real power will belong to Jude Kelly, the artistic director at the South Bank in London, and the many committees – 500, according to one estimate – whose task it will be to interpret the Government’s “Olympics vision” for the arts.
In the great adventure of 2012, there can be few areas with a sharper potential for triumph or profound embarrassment than in the events where sport and art– spart, perhaps it should be called – are brought together.
The problem is that, in this context, vision is essentially a marketing exercise designed to emphasise diversity, youth, togetherness and all the wonderful things which the Government would like to promote.
Any decent expression of culture is the antithesis of marketing. Art that Olympic committees, anxious to please politicians, commission and design is likely to look like a New Labour commercial directed by a latter-day Leni Riefestahl.
Sebastian Coe’s spartist dream is that the inspirational power of sport could be extended to culture, but the real lesson that top-level competitive sport offers is that achievement is never corporate – it is ruthlessly individual. The best results emerge not from a sense of social cohesiveness but from one person’s greed for success.
2012 is to be “Everyone’s Olympics” according to the slogan of the moment. If that idea infects the Cultural Olympiad, we will be in deep trouble.
The members of those 500 committees should resist government bullying to turn the arts into a sales placard for Britain. The most successful culture does more than express a fuzzy sense of togetherness, something which will be forgotten by the end of August 2012. It is spiky, individual, uncompromising.
If there is going to be a cultural legacy for this country beyond the Olympics – and it would be the scandal of a generation if there was not – there should be less spartism and talk of vision and more encouragement of individual excellence.
Beyond that, it should hardly need saying that the emphasis should be on youth and the future. Heritage will play badly on the world stage. It will make us look small, quaint and backward-looking.
There will presumably have to be the odd performance from the Royal Shakespeare Company but frankly the excitement and noise of the London Olympics are unlikely to be the perfect setting for King Lear or As You Like It.
The atmosphere and the dynamic of London 2012 should be more like a fringe festival – daring, unpredictable, radical, new.
The dead hand of Whitehall will be on much of what the country does during the next Olympic Games. Culture is the one area which might just wriggle free of marketing and corporate planning.
The art which London shows the world should be a fizzing celebration of originality, of difference within one nation. It might give other nations a shock that it is Britain which celebrates the bloody-minded individualism of its citizens but, if we do not, who will?
* Never mind Lewis Hamilton, Rebecca Adlington or Andy Murray. The vote of any sensible person seeking to nominate the BBC Sports Personality of the Year should go to Rebecca Romero.
It was extraordinary enough for one person to win silver and gold medals in two entirely different sports – rowing in Athens and cycling in Beijing. Since then, though, her comments have revealed her to be the perfect role model for sports stars of the future. Her uncompromising, obsessive mentality led her to abandon a highly successful rowing career because an Olympic silver and a world championship gold were not enough – she needed to be the unrivalled champion of her chosen event.
This approach is radically new in British sport. Our athletes in the past have been embarrassingly pleased to win any kind of medal; the Romero approach, increasingly prevalent among the new generation of sports stars, is that only winning is good enough.
She refuses to whinge about lack of funding – “You just have to get up and find a sport that is cheap,” she told one interviewer – and is delighted not to be part of the celebrity world. Elite athletes should not, she believes, be particularly well paid. Football has become more of an industry than a sport.
After the next Olympics, she may well consider taking up another event. “I am very inquisitive,” she says. “My mentality is to challenge myself and find my breaking point… I am constantly looking to break the boundaries.”
What a nutter. What a hero.
Lessons in the art of resignation
One in four Britons, amounting to six million people, is unhappy in his or her job, according to a YouGov/TUC survey, released with cruel timing to coincide with the end of the holidays. Quite a few of these people will be studying the conduct of two senior football managers with particular interest. Alan Curbishley has just walked out of his highly paid job at the Premiership club West Ham because his board refused to buy in the new players that were needed. Kevin Keegan has threatened to leave Newcastle United because his bosses have given more power than he likes to the club’s football director.
It is a brave step, to give yourself your marching orders for reasons of dignity and self-respect. Even in better times, it can backfire and seem petulant or self-important. Keegan already has a consider able reputation as a bolter.
But almost certainly these two brave, reckless men are setting a worthwhile example. Just now and then, those with power and money need to be reminded that employees are people, not disposable units of investment.
* Two great crises of the moment, obesity and crime, have coincided with unfortunate effect. There are apparently now so many fat policemen that a car containing two burly officers will, under Home Office safety regulations, only be allowed to carry one suspect. It is “an area of primary concern”, a spokesman for North Yorkshire police has said. An area of further concern might be whether these tub