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Britain enjoys an Olympic burst of pride

After riots plagued London twelve short months ago, British people have seized the opportunity to showcase their city.
Last modified: 13 Aug 2012 15:22

Odd things have been happening in London over the last couple of weeks.

Sober strangers have been talking to each other on the tube. The sun has been out. Football has been all but forgotten. And a guy called Mohamed has become a national hero. 

Danny Boyle's opening night statement may have presented a somewhat idealised version of where Britain is today, but at least it came close to placing a finger on the present rather than pushing the tired old buttons of the past.

Patriotism is a complicated business in the UK. Nationalism can often be interpreted as some sort of racist longing for the old days of Empire. The sins of our fathers are something we all live with here. 

But these Games have at least seen the Union Jack flag becoming an inclusive bit of cloth that we can all wrap ourselves in. It no longer has to represent the suffocating weight of our country's history. The Olympic victory stories have come from every corner, community and creed contained in this land.

It has reminded anyone who was in any doubt exactly what being British means. Mo Farrah was born in Mogadishu, Bradley Wiggins started life in Belgium and Andy Murray is not shy of reminding people he is Scottish. But all are British and proud of it.

I watch the closing ceremony with friends in Clapham, a patch of south London that has often been my home.

It is generally agreed that compared to Boyle's effort this is more like a chaotic wedding disco. There is also wide consensus that George Michael should no longer be allowed to gyrate in public. I head for the train just before The Who are wheeled out.

A year ago the streets around here looked rather different. People were not gathering for a sing-along in the pub with the Spice Girls then. Instead they were huddled at home while their high street was being smashed to pieces. Street violence not sporting achievement was on people's minds that summer. The must see television of August 2011 was the rolling news of a city turning on itself. 

No one is suggesting that two weeks of running and jumping are a cure-all for society’s ills. But when done well, an Olympics can remind a country and its people of all the things it does well.

Twelve months ago many youngsters were being vilified for their role in the riots. Now a rather different breed are being celebrated as Olympic champions. From showcasing a city to fast forwarding meaningful social and sporting change, the Olympics offer the tantalising, if perhaps elusive, prospect of so much.

The mere thought that just some of it might be possible and permanent, begins to explain why countries risk and spend so much on hosting them.