Of course, they achieved so highly for their own satisfaction, and for their families too, but many were clear: pride in Britain was a part of the motivation.
Oscar Wilde described patriotism as “The last refuge of the scoundrel”, however, something has clearly changed. The patriotism shown in the interviews following a medal success was somehow healthy. It was a patriotism that celebrated success, not a gloating that others had failed, or an assertion that sporting success made us somehow superior to other nations.
The jingoism associated with patriotism has gone.
The reason I think the new patriotism is ‘healthy’ is that these athletes were not saying ‘my country right or wrong’, but expressing gratitude for the support that the nation had given them. After all, in crude terms, each gold medal cost us in the region of £5 million, but of course that is to discount the totality of the return on National Lottery money that investment in young people can bring.
For those with short memories, and those who think we have become too medal obsessed, I invite you to view the table for the Atlanta Games of 1996. Great Britain won one gold and was 36th in the table. Would anyone like to go back to that state of affairs?
Another lesson of the Olympic success was the the clear benefit of effective organisation. Again, many medal winners acknowledged the contribution of the coaches and doctors supporting them.
There is, or was, something un-British about this. Once, success was something gained by the right class of person who had good breeding. British success was the result of improvisation, pluck and individual brilliance. We left it to foreigners to be organised. Then we were confronted with the gold medal machine of ‘systems’, in particular the US college system.
We now have very efficient ‘systems’ of our own and it has taken us high in the medals table. The whole country can learn from this. Perhaps we should appoint performance directors, similar to those in elite sport, to other walks of life.
If we have suddenly acquired the knack of getting organised, it may, in the startling words of one of our successful rowers, be “beyond worth it.”