Sunday sees the unveiling of the BBC’s sports personality of the year. This time round, the contest has an extra edge. Thanks partly to its successful Olympic Games, Britain has a surfeit of outstanding sporting achievements on which to congratulate itself. But the competition is supposed to reward something more than achievement and prowess. Consider the award’s title carefully. It is a personality we are looking out for. Mere excellence is not enough.
By happy coincidence, here too there is an embarrassment of riches on offer. In among the clichés (there is a golden girl and a properly dour Scot), there are also my own two favourites for the award: Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah. The two men could not have more distinctive demeanours in their pursuit of sporting triumph, and both reveal aspects of modern Britain that give pause for reflection.
Wiggins is sharp-tongued and insolent; refreshingly disdainful of the celebrity culture that has tried to entrap him after his memorable victory in cycling’s Tour de France. To listen to his barbed asides, even while he was on the victor’s rostrum, is to be reminded of the spirit of John Lennon, another great British cynic and despiser of doubletalk.
Farah, the Somalian-born middle-distance double-gold medallist, could hardly be more different. His gentle good humour proved equally alluring to casual spectators. Both men showed remarkable resolve in winning events that are famously gruelling. There is more than one way to flog yourself to exhaustion.
This summer, more than any time I can remember, sport took over the duties of culture in helping to define national values. The arts are used to shaping this debate. We leave even a mediocre production of Shakespeare with a better understanding of what it is to be English. The push-and-pull of Britain’s artistic movements, from the elemental pagan spirit of Stonehenge to the uncompromising drive of London hip-hop, tells us little bits about ourselves. Put the bits together, and you have something like a complete picture.
That was the task that faced Danny Boyle, director of London’s Olympic opening ceremony, and undisputed winner of the cultural personality of the year. His job was to preface the sporting action with an artistic show that would prove equally spectacular. It was even more difficult than it sounds. Although there are many similarities between sport and the arts – a sense of spectacle, the unfolding of drama, the intensity of mass appreciation – there is also an important difference.
The beauty of sport is that it simplifies the human condition. It quantifies, in the crudest and occasionally cruellest of ways, human capabilities. There is a first, second and third, and a hierarchy of metals given in reward. Although rich in backstories, sporting contests in themselves have no room for abstractions or sidetracks. The monomaniacal pursuit of being the best is everything.
Art is the opposite. It does everything it can to complicate the human condition. It is impatient with straightforward narrative and simple judgments. It follows every wayward path, every diversion. The results do not always paint a flattering picture. Art, to paraphrase the Olympic motto, goes darker, deeper, truer. These investigations into the human psyche are not capable of measurement, and more often than not leave us floundering in the realms of ambiguity. We don’t cheer dementedly at the climax of Hamlet: if we want catharsis, it comes with a forbidding price tag.
Boyle did his best to bring these two worlds together, to entwine the theatrical impact of great sport and the penetrating insights of great art. His achievement was rapturously received, although it will have come as no great surprise to anyone who has closely followed the stellar development of British culture in the 21st century, or indeed Boyle’s own vibrant and eclectic back catalogue.
In his first major post-Olympic interview on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row this week, Boyle said he was determined to make the opening ceremony a statement of national values. Hence the now-famous sequence on the National Health Service, which he said had had an extraordinary and improbable international impact: the New York Times, for instance, ran a live blog of pictures of nurses returning home after the ceremony in their uniforms.
And what kind of nation was he celebrating? One that was “both tolerant and full of dissent”, he said. He wanted to show the world that Britain was a “wonderfully progressive country” that should not only be remembered for its cultural heritage, but also for a bright future, infused with a democratic spirit: “We tried to cater for everyone, so that people from all areas of life could find value in it.”
The sport that followed Boyle’s ceremony did its best to rouse the public in celebration of those values. The Paralympics, in particular, were a watershed in the changing of social attitudes: the phrase “celebrating diversity” was given flesh, blood, tears and even controversy.
It was belief that carried it through, said Boyle, although he couldn’t deny himself a moment of trumpet-blowing: “I think we are really good at stuff.” For a moment, we couldn’t be sure if he was talking about his fellow Britons, or humanity at large.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden