A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
Let’s Show The World Its Future
London’s unique multiculturalism was a key part of the Olympic bid. And now more than ever, the city’s easy-going mix offers the best answer to the challenge of ethnic and religious diversity in the 21st century There can hardly be any adult for whom the Olympic Games do not carry some vivid personal memory. I was too young to see the dazzling teenage Cassius Marcellus Clay dancing his way to a gold medal in Rome in 1960. But I can recall tears welling up in my eyes at the sight of the monumental act of courage it must have taken the Parkinson’s-afflicted Muhammad Ali, 36 years later, to raise the Olympic flame in Atlanta. And like every other black child, I was euphoric about the victory of Abebe Bikila, the barefoot Ethiopian, in the marathons of 1960 and 1964. The first African to win Olympic gold, he created a role model that I secretly cherished for decades.
However, none of these memories can compare with the moment that finally came this week. The city where I was born, where I grew up, and whose life I charted for almost 15 years in The London Programme, came from behind to win the right to host the greatest sporting event in the world. It seemed like the climax of a Hollywood movie (and probably will be before long).
Any lingering doubts about the impact of the Olympics on the capital would have been washed away by an irresistible wave of pride. Given that most of my life is spent extolling the benefits of Britain’s multi-ethnic society, I felt a particular thrill. This was a brilliant vindication of the gamble made by Sebastian Coe and Ken Livingstone to stress the city’s successful ethnic and racial integration. On Wednesday, Coe’s team, composed of Londoners of all shades, shapes and ages, snatched the prize of the 2012 Olympics from France by just four votes.
London’s victory is more than just a great marketing job. It is a recognition that our capital offers the best real-world answer that humanity has to the challenge of ethnic and religious diversity. It was reflected in the team we saw promoting the London bid.
Whilst others wheeled out a phalanx of grey middle-aged suits, our line up paraded humanity in all its glorious diversity – Denise Lewis side by side with David Beckham; able-bodied athletes with disabled; old, young and everything in between, working together and sharing a single aim. London, as Sebastian Coe reminded us time and again, was offering the world a Games that showed us the future as it could be. And the world said that a tomorrow that looks like London looks today would do just fine.
The Olympics have always been a profound sign of the preoccupations of their times. In 1936, the Nazi regime cowed the Olympic movement into letting the Games be used as a platform for its dreams of Aryan supremacy. In 1968, in Mexico City, African Americans held their black-gloved fists aloft to announce the arrival of black power. And in 1980, the world divided over the Moscow Games, with a partial Western boycott marking the final stage in the titanic struggle that we called the Cold War.
London’s victory in the race for the 2012 Olympics carries an equally historic message. At the start of the 21st century, the great issue of our times is this: can the peoples of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith world share the planet in peace? Can we cross the lines of difference and share a moment in which the talents and the endeavour of the young become more important than their colour or their ethnicities? And can people of diverse traditions ever learn to share the same dreams and ambitions?
Most people want the answer to be a resounding yes. But we saw last week in London the desperate acts of people determined to show that we cannot, and should not, live and let live. To these extremists, London’s easy-going mix is a daily affront. It is no wonder that they want to wreck it. And it is also no wonder that the members of the International Olympic Committee – black, white, yellow, brown, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew and faith-free – turned in these turbulent, divisive times to the one city in the world where each and every one of them could come and expect to feel at home.
This is not the first time the world has looked to London for leadership. Our special mix of competitiveness, courage and cool mark us out as a beacon in the mists of conflict. In 1948, as Europe struggled to recover from the darkest chapter of its history, with millions of people displaced and cities in ruins, it was our capital that staged the first post-Hitler Games, attracting competitors from 59 nations..
Twelve years earlier, the Nazis’ planned triumph had been thwarted by the genius of one man, the great African-American athlete Jesse Owens. Owens infuriated Adolf Hitler with the most effective riposte possible to racism: he humiliated his German rivals, won a record four gold medals, and silenced the roar of the crowds. But the post-war Games had to create a new legend for the peoples of the world, that would wash away the bitter taste of fascist triumphalism.
And what a tale they told. The athletes competed on a makeshift track at Wembley. Government offices were hastily cleared for the administrators. Schools went on holiday to give the competitors somewhere to sleep. And to the delight of little girls everywhere, as well as to those who had suffered under Nazi occupation, the London Games provided its own heroine. The Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Coen, a 30-year-old mother of two who had been an also-ran in Berlin and was thought to be over the hill, took four gold medals.
The first of Blankers-Coen’s victories took place just 40 days after the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks, ushering in a new phase in London’s great story of migration. It was a moment symbolic of the openness of the city. We can still see it in London’s dozens of ethnic communities living side-by-side, intermingling and intermarrying; in its 70-plus kinds of restaurants; in its babble of 300 and more languages, which still somehow contrive to invent a universally intelligible argot; and the easy-come, easy-go sparkiness of its people. These qualities would make any member of the International Olympic Committee look around and feel ‘I could so easily belong here’.
Indeed, I imagine that many of the delegates will have known London well. Many will have relatives here. Some may have been grateful to a city that took in their compatriots when they fled repression in their own lands; for example, one of the members of the crucial IOC technical assessment team had spent years here, exiled by South Africa’s apartheid regime.
I do not know this for a fact, but I would be amazed if many IOC members, or their parents, had not been overseas students here. This perhaps is a lesson for those who may, after this week’s events, want to close the doors to all foreigners.
It should also be a warning to the government, which is considering making the visa regime for students even tougher than it already is. The fact is that we cannot, however hard we try, shut out the determined terrorist. But we can needlessly turn away people who should be our friends at crucial moments in the next generation.
The Olympic dream has come true. No doubt tomorrow we will awake to the costs and the challenges. But we already know that we have what it takes to deliver. The unity in diversity that won us the Games and that saw us through last week’s dreadful carnage will be at the heart of the 2012 Games.
By the time London is finished, everyone on Earth should want to know how we created the diverse, integrated society we have. The 2012 Olympic flame will illuminate some wonderful sport. But it should also light the path ahead for the future of our common humanity.