Exclusive Preview: Olympic Bidding, Multicultural Nationalism, Terror, and the Epistemological Violence of ‘Making Britain Proud’

In celebration of the London 2012 Olympics, SEN Journal: Online Exclusives is delighted to present a selection of exclusive previews on the theme of nationalism, ethnicity and sport over the next few weeks.

By focusing on London’s 2012 olympic bidding, our first article by Mark Falcous and Michael Silk explores the relationship between British nationalist identity politics and sport, terrorism, place re-imagining, mega-event bidding, and corporate neo-liberalism.

Photo credit: tableatny, flickr

Abstract

This paper excavates the entanglement of British nationalist identity politics with sport, terrorism, place re-imagining, mega-event bidding, and corporate neoliberalism. We focus on London’s 2012 olympic bidding and the coalescence of corporate, state, civic, and sporting interests surrounding the national (re)imaginings that characterised the bid. We open with a critical reading of the bid narratives explicating how selective assertions of Britishness were envisioned through the motifs of harmonious multicultural unity, ‘youth’, and passion for sport. We focus on how these narratives offered up ‘idealised’ multicultural citizens and harmonious diversity as a reactionary form of nationalist ‘pride politics’ (Fortier 2005). We subsequently juxtapose these narratives with a critical reading of English press and political discourse in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings – the day after London was awarded the olympic games. This juxtaposition reveals the tensions and ambiguities between assertions of inclusive civic nationalism – that apparently transcends ethnic difference – and the geo-politics of the ‘war on terror’ within Britain’s post-imperial self imaginings. Specifically, we tease out the place – and ambiguities – of the 2012 olympics within these imaginings reading the London games as an exemplar of a soft-core ideological spectacle informing selective nationalist narratives within the context of unfolding neoliberal politics.

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Introduction

On 6 July 2005 London upstaged its chief rival, Paris, in the bidding to host the 2012 olympic games.1 The announcement, made in Singapore, was met with both delight from civic and political leaders and stage-managed celebrations in London’s Trafalgar Square. The bid team, led by storied olympic middle-distance runner Lord Sebastian Coe, had mobilised corporate Britain, politicians, sporting bodies and celebrities, the monarchy, actors, comedians, and the public in a variety of ways in selling the bid – at least at face value – on the rhetoric of the regeneration of impoverished parts of east London and an infrastructural legacy of ‘community benefits’. Less than twenty-four hours later, bombings on London’s public transport system claimed the lives of fifty-two people and injured several hundred.2

The 7 July 2005 attacks gave weight to ongoing reassessments of ‘Britishness’, placing renewed emphasis on the redundant and exclusionary quest for the core national values.3 The fact that three of the four suicide bombers were young, middle class, British citizens intensified media and political commentaries (from all points of the spectrum) surrounding security, national identity, and multiculturalism.4 Prime Minister Gordon Brown subsequently asserted that the violence highlighted the need for greater ‘integration’ and proposed a national holiday to celebrate ‘Britishness’. He argued that seeking commonality was ever-more critical since the bombings (Brown 2006).5 For our purposes, the events, and the subsequent response provide a unique conjuncture for insights into the economic, cultural, and socio-political entanglements of the olympic bid within the context of post-imperial national identity politics, multiculturalism, global terror (both state and non-state), and civic/place re-imagining under the aegis of neoliberal globalisation.

This article acts as a critical intervention seeking to reveal the interconnectivity of axes of power that surrounded the unique conjuncture of these events. Whilst numerous commentators have explored the issues surrounding these national debates within the public and political spheres (e.g. Abbas 2007; Allen 2007; Brighton 2007; Hickman 2007; Kundnani 2007; Modood 2005; Mythen and Walklate 2006; Stephens 2007), the intersections with the olympic decision remain underexplored. As an exemplar of reassessments of Britishness within the realm of the popular (Pitcher 2009), we point to the place of sporting spectacle within the intersecting discourses of multiculturalism, inclusivity, and civic and national unity. In this respect, the article addresses the contradictory space that multicultural rhetoric occupies in contemporary Britain – a contested rhetoric deployed across the political spectrum as both the ‘cure’ for national unification (manifest most recently in the proposed points for the citizenship test) and the ‘problem’ (including a failure to integrate and antithetical Britishness behaviours).

First, we offer a contextualisation by considering the broader impetus for the coalescence of interests – corporate, state, civic, and sporting – surrounding the hosting of sporting mega-events and their connection with rhetorics of urban regeneration and identity politics. We then offer a critical reading of the ‘national imaginings’ articulated within olympic bidding campaigns that asserted a harmonious multicultural unity within London and Britain. We subsequently juxtapose these observations with English national press and political rhetoric in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings as a means of exploring the 2012 olympics as a component of Britain’s ambiguous and contradictory post-imperial self imaginings. Specifically, we focus on English press coverage in the days immediately following the bombings.6 In accordance with a critically discursive approach (see Banerjee and Linstead 2001), the intent is not to offer an essentialist interpretation of these media texts but to reveal their workings and seek to displace their hierarchical assumptions. Our closing discussion considers how the olympic narrative of cosmopolitan unity jars with more essentialist nationalisms, yet is also problematic as nationalist discourse in itself…

Come to London to Meet the World: Post-Imperial Pride Politics

Often deployed as a soft-core question of culture, as opposed to the hard-core issues of the operation of the military industrial complex (Carmichael 1993; Wang 2002), sport acts as a major cultural signifier that can engage national sensibilities, identities, and experiences (Hobsbawm 1990; Silk and Andrews 2001). It is unsurprising then that re-examinations of British identities in the context of wide-ranging transitions associated with the post-Imperial and post-Cold War era have featured sporting manifestations in varying ways. As Robinson (2008) notes, sport provides a tool par excellence for negotiating ideas of nation, class, and race ‘after Empire’.7 In this sense the London 2012 olympics provides for rich insights into Britain’s sense of itself and its relation to the world (Newman 2007; Phillips 2004).

Bidding for the 2012 games involved a constellation of public and private institutions and alliances between sporting bodies (notably the British Olympic Association (BOA)), the New Labour government, London authorities, and corporate backers in attempts to both garner public and local media support and subsequently persuade International Olympic Committee (IOC) members to award the games to London. This process involved the mobilisation of discourses designed to frame the hosting of the games in favourable terms to London taxpayers, corporate elites, and the IOC.

The key framing of the bid to local publics was that support represented an act of ‘pride’; the British public was urged to ‘Make Britain Proud’ and ‘Back the Bid’. As one media release captured: ‘London 2012 … has issued a call to action to Make Britain Proud as the countdown continues to the decision by the IOC in Singapore’ (London 2012 Media Release 2004b). Indeed, London 2012’s promotional film entitled ‘Make Britain Proud’ (backed by omnipresent corporations EDF Energy, British Airways, BT, Virgin Atlantic, and Accenture), the bid’s anthem (‘Proud’), and the ‘back the bid’ slogan projected within a barrage of corporate entangled promotions, constructed support for the bid as a ‘patriot act’.

The opening paragraphs of the official ‘candidate file’ submitted to the IOC by the London 2012 bid quickly revealed two key themes: youth and ethnic diversity. It stated:

London’s role as beacon for world youth would also be a benefit. Staging the Games here in 2012 would advance the Olympic Movement, stimulating – on a global scale – the interest of a new generation. London’s diversity and creativity would contribute to the Games as well, guaranteeing a warm welcome for all and an exciting sporting and cultural experience. (London 2012 Candidate File:1)…

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By Mark Falcous and Michael Silk.

First published Volume 10, Issue 2 of Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.

 

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