The British like to think of themselves as self-deprecating, and normally they’re right, even if much of that is a self-compliment. But now, with Britain winning more Olympic medals than it had since 1908, self-deprecation has been jettisoned. It ended the games on Sunday with the third-most gold medals after the U.S. and China, and the fourth-most medals overall, with Russia just ahead.
This was good for a midsize, broke country. As the third spot seemed increasingly like the final result through the last week, the Brits became increasingly delirious. BBC commentators, normally schooled in judicious and balanced commentary, were shouting their larynxes out as the medals rolled in: When Sir Chris Hoy, the cycling tyro, won his sixth gold medal in the keirin (speed-controlled) race last Wednesday, the “commentary” melted into a stream of hysterical liquid sound.
Yet if the British did very well in the games, the BBC did badly in what it is supposed to be best at: being fair, balanced, neutral and objective. Frankly, it went ape.
On BBC Radio Four’s Media Show, Roger Mosey, who headed the Olympic coverage, was asked why impartiality was nowhere to be found, and wasn’t that a problem? He protested that the news coverage was impartial, but added that “when you see Chris Hoy getting his sixth medal, it would be nuts for the national broadcaster not to be rooting for him.” He’s wrong about the coverage: When a Brit won gold, it was top of the news for hours, relegating the destruction of Aleppo (and everything else, including the slower destruction of the euro) to second place. And he was wrong about it being nuts, too.
There were some protests, but unfortunately often grouchy ones. Patrice de Beer, a former London correspondent for Le Monde, wrote last week of the “farcical jingoism” of the modern Olympics, asking rhetorically – “is it not the task of analysts to keep their heads cool when faced with a tidal wave of ‘sporting nationalism’? And to warn of the rude awakening … that will come when the games are over?” British commentator Nick Cohen made much the same point in Time: “Outsiders see a confident country. For this brief interlude we may believe it ourselves. But not for long.” Their point was that this was ugly chauvinism. But in predicting that it would all end in tears when reality returned, they came across as killjoys, Puritans eagerly anticipating the payment of the wages of sin, seeing the enthusiasm as a distraction from the necessary long brood on our deeper problems.