Second is nowhere, went the mantra, and we still tend to regard silver as failure. And that is strange, for while it is understandable that a gold-medal prospect may be disappointed with his/her luck or performance, we ourselves have not been failed by the athlete. The athlete has no direct obligation to us as individuals.
The relationship between the athlete and the colours he or she wears works both ways. The athlete has, in effect, taken a vow to perform at maximum for the nation represented by those colours, but the nation should remain aware that it has co-opted the athlete. The nation is the bigger unit, of course, and the athlete is to regard his or her selection as an honour. And indeed that is what happens. Athletes do regard it as an honour.
One might argue that the obligation of the athlete resembles the obligation of the soldier in being willing to do or die for the nation, but joining the army entails nowhere near so much competition as being selected for the Olympic team. Being allowed to join the army is not in itself an honour: being picked for the Olympics is.
The word 'honour' will keep butting into this and, uncomfortable as I am with the word in a good number of contexts ('honour killing' being the most obvious example), I can't see how to avoid it.
Honour and nation. Hard words. Dulce et decorum est. These are troubled shores.
They are particularly troubled since nationalism as a force often seems pernicious to me. I have argued against English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Hungarian nationalism before on the grounds that they have thrived by exclusion and by fetishising and simplifying a historical memory in which there is always some terrible, inhuman Other that exists primarily to be despised. The nation is defined by its evil enemy, that is what gives it its sense of cohesion, courage, that warm glowing feeling of being right and wronged. They will always point to massacres by others and ignore their own.
Politicians know this force very well and some will not hesitate to draw on it. It is not that the nation has not been wronged at times as that 'being wronged' has become its very identity. The wonged nation looks to huddle up with other wronged nations: that is their form of internationalism. By this definition there is never a shortage of the wronged.
But sport is potentially the nation as delight. Nations can cheer their own representatives without wishing ill on the representatives of others. The athlete and the nation are bodies beyond individual bodies. The athlete's body is the body of the nation: the nation is the body of which the athlete is a part.
Sport is the theatre where this can and does happen in a non-martial context, even in boxing. Qualities in others are recognised and celebrated (see Tim Love's comment on the poost below this one). There is, above and beyond the sentimental hype, a ground feeling that the category: human, subsumes, while permitting the existence of, the category: British or Dutch etc. That is, I think, what the Olympic spirit is supposed to represent.
People group themselves in various ways: as family, as neighbours, as people with a common interest or passion, as cities, regions, countries, ethnicities, tribes, cultures, and classes. The nation is a combination of some of these, maybe all of them at best. The nation has the potential to be almost unconditionally participatory.
So for me one of the most moving moments was after Mo Farrah won the 10,000. As the Independent had it:
When a reporter asked him after his first gold if he would rather have run for Somalia, he was quick to retort: "Look mate, I'm British."
I find it moving because I think Somalian-born Muslim Mo speaks for me too, and that, at times like this, when the nation is at its best, he speaks for the nation. It is the potential nation that was being celebrated in the Opening Ceremony, and here he was speaking it.
It isn't just the double Olympic gold-winning athlete but all those other less athletic participants that matter too. I was continually rooting for the GB athlete because I felt a participant. Literally, I had a part in it and felt better for it - mate.