The Olympic Games are about competition and conflict in every form. At the crucial, sporting level, individuals or teams do battle against their competitors to see who can do best at whatever their event requires – running, jumping, swimming, diving, or, in the case of dressage, persuading a horse to faithfully perform steps from Swan Lake.
But off the field other clashes abound, some the inevitable and even welcome result of every country on earth competing for glory in a single city. Examples from the first week include a fleeting détente between North and South Korea, a rapidly-shared photo of a volleyball game and the ongoing drama between those accused of doping and those not.
It is characteristic of a circus such as the Games that momentary or minor events can stun the world and inspire either reasonable debate or hyperbolic assertions.
The selfie taken by Hong Un Jobg of North Korea and Lee Eun Ju of South Korea is unlikely to end the conflict between their nation states but was nevertheless a welcome fillip for a tournament that has seen athletes in open warfare over drug issues. The volleyball photo – showing one team wearing bikinis while the other hijabs – was for some a powerful reminder of the unifying power of sport, but for others it was a massive or colossal culture clash, evidence of division rather than unison. For others still, the existence of a discussion about the clothing of female athletes is a depressingly prominent non-issue when there’s plenty else to talk about.
Many watching the games will be inspired, either by feats of athleticism themselves or the wider socio-political stories emerging from them.
The last Olympics saw a genuine increase in good-feeling in the UK, with rises pre-and-post event in both national pride and tolerance of other nationalities.
Rio’s troubles in the run-up (pun intended) to these Games were well documented and widely feared (including by my colleague Georgiana Murariu here), although news of divided politics, corruption scandals, lack of an effective transport network and a grim economic mood may simply have recalled London itself – in 2012 or 2016.
Brazil may well be hoping for a similar boost to the national ego once the Olympic and Paralympic Games are done in September. But the lesson from London is not a happy one. Despite the short term uplift, by the end of 2012 consumers in the UK were more pessimistic about both their own finances and the national economy and reported lower levels of satisfaction. The embrace of global culture evident during that summer did not last – between that Olympics and this, the UK voted to leave the EU, accelerating the decline, or at least the refashioning, of globalisation.
Inspiration, in the long term, was in short supply. Perhaps most surprisingly, the last Olympics did end up inspiring a generation – at least for a while – but not the generation it might have intended. After London finished, the cohort most affected in terms of happiness, wellbeing and global outlook were the over-55s. Considering the non-sporting issues and non-issues already thrown up by this latest instalment, any Olympic inspiration may be welcomed in Rio.