British Gaming

British Gaming
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After your city has hosted the Olympics the games are never quite the same. Regardless of whether any real controversies arise, all subsequent hosts are inevitably viewed through a lens of hyper-competitive criticism, jealousy, and even spite as an endless “ours-versus-theirs” narrative continues for decades (Montreal newspapers are still churning out “how did ours compare” editorials some 35 years later).

Over here in Vancouver, this insecure syndrome has been particularly acute, especially since the international media has made it very clear that our 2010 games didn’t really “count” in the official Olympic canon — all references to “last time” are invariably to China; the lowly winter games being a charming practice run, at best — not to mention the inescapably depressing cultural disparity between a lowly Canadian city with a population just over 600,000 and one of the world’s great capitals of art, commerce, and politics. Why couldn’t we have gone before the Mogadishu Olympics or something?

Still, competitiveness aside, one of the more interesting things to observe is just how similar these two games have been, and the ways in which two of the world’s great English-speaking nations have collectively forged some new Olympic precedents for all subsequent host nations.

Canada, for instance, initially came under some fire for not sufficiently toning down its own national patriotism in favor of the bland one-worldism that has been traditionally expected from host countries. Some even compared us to Nazis, and though that was a bit much, all the chauvinistic self-indulgence on display two years ago was undeniably grating and smothering, as I noted at the time.

London? Not much different. Their opening ceremonies were every bit as cloying, cliched, self-righteous, and political (even Canada didn’t have the audacity to include “a salute to health care”), their public every bit as cocksure and boisterous, and their press equally unapologetic in its patriotic boosterism at the expense of critical self-awareness. A great example of the latter, in particular, was the short-lived career of Guardian columnist Harrison Mooney, a Vancouverite originally recruited by the British paper to say mean things about the games as payback for the infamous pettiness of the British press during 2010. Though only tongue-in-cheek, Mooney was nevertheless quietly canned after just a few columns for being too much of a downer.

As we head towards the games in Russia and Rio, the consensus now seems to be pretty clear that the Olympics are a showcase for domestic nationalism, full stop.  You could see that trend beginning in Beijing, whose ceremonies and festivities, though far more neutral, worldly, and generic, were nevertheless widely perceived as a demonstration of China’s burgeoning national might. Britain and Canada have simply emphasized the highly insular nature of their own perceived superiority.

Perhaps that unto itself says something quite revealing about the state of patriotism in the 21st century; as our world becomes more borderless and globalized in practice, the need for self-confidently nationalistic spectacles — even meaningless ones — becomes that much more important. As our anxieties rise over the fact that we’re all increasingly eating the same mass-produced or multicultural foods and working for the same outsource-happy transnational corporations, maybe it’s inevitable that the Olympics would necessarily have to become a refuge for nationalism, just as in the bloody 20th century they were so often a refuge from it.

Granted, anxieties over the traditional trappings of nationalism have never been greater, either. There were no references to the British Empire in London’s opening ceremonies, for example, but plenty of sops to immigration and interracial dating. Almost every aspect of Canada’s games, likewise, from the mascot designs to the font choices, were nervously selected to acknowledge our marginalized aboriginal population at the expense of the country’s far more influential Anglo heritage. The end result is a distinctly post-modern patriotic spectacle that’s as paradoxically insecure as it is self-confident, born from nations as eager to minimize their undeniable attributes as they are to exaggerate the importance of the trivial. We need to feel good about ourselves, but only in the most ostentatiously progressive and conciliatory ways. We’ll show the world we’re the best — at reducing our national identities to the most non-threatening collection of feel-good tropes. Perhaps then they’ll be more forgiving of our drunken victory shrieks at 3 am.

What’s the Russian equivalent of a hundred Marry Poppins fighting Lord Volemort? Or the Brazilian version of William Shatner making jokes about sex in a canoe? We’ll find out soon enough.


  1. Max

    Wow, wow, wow! You can't just include the LibDem-Tory breakdown over House of Lords reform in a toon like that and then just avoid giving it a proper commentary! Not considering how much you have written about your frustration with the Canadian appointed Senate! The readers deserve to know your views!

  2. vonPeterhof

    "What’s the Russian equivalent of a hundred Marry Poppins fighting Lord Volemort?"

    I like to imagine that it will be a re-enactment of the Russian Empire's conquest of the Sochi area and the expulsion of the indigenous Ubykhs, Circassians and Sadz Abkhazians, narrated by the non-threatening, mildly New York-accented voice of Vladimir Posner. Thing is, we're not quite as post modern as y'all are, so to many of us the marginalization of the aboriginal population at the expense of the country’s far more influential Slavic heritage would actually be a point of pride. The local governor made the news a couple of days ago with his speech about the dangers of an uncontrolled increase of minority populations and the need to prevent further migration from the neighbouring non-Slavic provinces with the formation of Cossack brigades that can do "what the police aren't authorized to do". If he gets his way, even the few descendants of the indigenous populations that are there right now might be gone by the time the of the Olympics!

  3. Colin Minich

    You could've just played the Dead Parrot Sketch about five times and I think that might have been a little more fitting for an opening ceremony for London.

    And seriously, JJ? Vancouver's festivities are far dwarfed to the absurdity the British and especially the Chinese put on display. Canada has no real reason to have to make itself feel like it's out there in the world whereas China puts its athletes through near slave conditions just so some metal can apparently make itself feel more legit to push the Philippines around. In my opinion Canada was a lot humbler, but then again I wasn't in Vancouver itself when you guys beat the US >:C in the hockey final. I didn't think about the mascot choice and the like but again you make a point making it look postmodern which is rather stupid if you ask me…like it's trying to appeal to some political correctness god that only ultraliberals and US expats would worship.

    I wouldn't be so self-denigrating about the Olympics and Canada's notion of having to feel superficially proud. After all, you're not China or to a lesser extent the US.

  4. AddThreeAndFive

    Is that The Doctor I see in your toon?

  5. Stephen

    I liked Canada's opening ceremony much more than that of London's. I felt Canada showed the world how it embraced its heritage and multiple cultures; unlike England, who (I felt) seemed to only cram its own ego down the throats of the viewers. Admittedly, I only got to watch what Daddy NBC decided to show (I missed out on the tribute to victims of terrorism so I could be fed a Phelps interview with Seacrest), but from what I saw, it was as obnoxious as it was boring. Yes, we know where Mary Poppins and Harry Potter came from. The Beatles are ALSO English?? Get out!
    I agree with others when the tell you that Canada has every right to be proud in the display they showed the world. I found it to be very pleasant to watch.

  6. rmjones13

    As a American looking into the last couple games, all I can say is.. "Thank goodness that Brasil and Russia are next. They are bound to put on a actual good show!"

    Look, Canada's ceremonies was full of these cliches that even if they were apparently to show how different they were from the USA, just made everyone I knew talk about how apparently Canadians had no taste. (No offense, but you are putting on a world-wide show to welcome and then bid adieu to a international audience…. and you go for cartoon figures and William Shatner giving a cheesy speech? Wut? There is a time and place for novelty; the Olympic Ceremonies aren't it. I did like some of the Native stuff though, that looked cool.) And me and my sister were bored to tears during the vast majority of the British opening. Or weirded out. The giant baby? The long kiss with tongue of two teens? A army of Mary Poppins? I liked the idea of literary characters in a brawl, but you go with a Army of Mary Poppins? REALLY? And what was with all the American movies and television on the house-screen set up? The only time my breath caught during the entire thing was with the torch lighting and the moths on bikes. Things that were aesthetically wonderful.

    The pastoral scene was cool, but everything took so long to dismantle/set up that it could not hold my interest. Great idea, poor execution. There is only so long you can watch small things happen slowly while people pull up sod.

    Brasil though? They have Carnival! (excuse lack of proper annunciation marks). They have put on a massive party that the world comes to see for years. I doubt they will be able to go wrong with their ceremony. And Russia struck home with the gorgeous work at the end of the Vancouver games, so I think they should be able to do more of the same. And their cliches are kinda more refined then Canada's (Ballet, Gymnastics, Faberge Eggs, etc).

  7. JonasB

    The Olympics have never been about unity. They're a giant competition in which the world's nations pit athletes against each other. It's always surprised me how much commentary goes on about the excess patriotism of the host countries whenever the Olympics come around. What would critics expect to happen?

  8. Zulu

    I don't remember much overly patriotic moments in the Vancouver games, honestly. The Beijing ceremony was as impressive as it was pretentious, but still awesome spectacle (the best Olympic ceremony in that respect). I agree with you JJ on that I do see this trend in the Olympic games of national identity over world unity. I found the Barcelona, Athens, and Sydney ceremonies less patriotic and more about welcoming athletes and spectators of different countries (see "Hola!" in the 1992 Olympics).

  9. NXG

    I wouldn't say that the inclusion of a homage to the NHS was political. Danny Boyle's intention was to show some of the great 'revolutions' that have shaped British society in the recent past, and that's why the NHS was included (though perhaps I wouldn't have chosen it). For many, the NHS has been a defining feature of the post-war welfare society, and even today the political talk about it is not whether it should exist or not, but in what ways it can be made better. Its existence is considered beyond political – it is an indelible mark upon our society. It was't intended as a 'salute to healthcare because we want to make a point about universal healthcare, *cough* USA *cough*', although I understand it has been interpreted as such overseas.

    One further point: wasn't it great that we had actual NHS nurses taking part doing dance routines? How's that for a nice human touch? And, as a British viewer, I think that was the one defining thing about the London Olympics opening ceremony – the human touches. Most people at the viewing party I was at agreed that it highlighted the people who made the UK what it is today, and those who made the Olympics happen, like the construction staff who lined Steve Redgrave's run into the stadium with the torch.

  10. NXG

    Oh, and whilst the opening ceremony was decidedly British in its quirkiness and seeming obscurity to the rest of the world, don't forget that during the actual events you definitely see more of the unifying aspects of the Olympic spirit. The press may not focus on this as much as celebrating Team GB's best Olympics ever, but it is clear in every event that I have watched the spectators have always been behind everyone competing.
    The Filipina weightlifter who crashed out after failing to lift her weights was greeted with groans of sympathy; the Filipino 5000m runner who finished dead-last in his heat was met at the finishing line by the winner Mo Farah, who hugged him to the cheers of the stadium; the Turkish girl who injured herself during the 800m run but kept going despite being in tears was cheered all the way to the finish line.

    Obviously I'm getting too stuck into the Olympics. But you try and stay cynical when you live in a full-blown Olympic bonanza that, touch wood, is actually being pulled off pretty successfully so far. :-P
    We have heard nothing but moaning, negativity and criticism for several years, all the way up to the very start of the opening ceremony ("Oh God they actually have sheep out there, they do, don't they? And look what Beijing had…"), so perhaps take our new-found patriotism as a symptom of our overwhelming relief that it hasn't been the duff job we've been led to believe it would be.

  11. Cicero

    On the one hand, I checked and was amused to find that there is, indeed, a dressage contest at the Olympics. Unsurprisingly, Britain took gold in both individual and team competitions, and also got the bronze in the individual contest.

    With that said, I'd like to see a "synchronized cliches" contest somewhere. I wonder what the US would bring?

  12. ThePsudo

    "Coalition Breaking" pfftHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAWWWWHAHAheheheheeheeee … *DROOL*

    I enjoyed that.

  13. Force of Will

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