Bread and Circuses

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August 5, 2012 by Jake Cantona

As I mentioned last time out, I managed to miss Wimbledon, the Tour de France, the Olympic opening ceremony and, thankfully, England’s dire performance in the first test against South Africa. I didn’t catch any of the Games themselves until last Wednesday when I had to go to Exeter on business.

A two-hour bus journey which aggravated my back, coupled with lowering clouds and the promise of rain as we neared the Big City didn’t exactly raise my spirits, and naturally, the rain started within about five minutes of arriving. It was still raining when my meeting had finished and I was left with forty-five minutes to kill before the bus back.

Still feeling thoroughly anti-social, I headed towards Princesshay and attempted to enter Debenhams. My way was blocked by a group of about fifty people gazing in wonder at a large – well, for Exeter at least – screen that had been set up in one of the open areas dotted about the centre. Some were getting soaked, and others were jammed into the revolving doors of Debenhams, all of them were watching a couple of female British rowers grunting their way to what was, I think, the first British gold medal of the Games.

There was a tangible sense of communal involvement, of willing these women to achieve. The sense when they crossed the line was of muted joy and relief. It all felt very British indeed. Complete strangers almost caught one another’s eyes as they applauded, or cheered sotto voce. As some of the people dispersed, one or two even took it upon themselves to greet those coming the other way with the news, and, it has to be said, my attitude towards the Olympics, which had previously been fairly ambivalent, shifted slightly.

It had felt good to be among a group of people sharing a good moment, I certainly felt happy for the winners. It only took a couple of minutes to knock the edge off things.

I decided to nip into M&S to get a sandwich and headed back towards the High Street. By now it was teeming down, and even the Big Issue seller had abandoned his pitch outside St Stephen’s church. Most people were either moving quickly or getting under cover or into shops in which they had no intention of buying anything[i], but one guy was standing absolutely still on the corner opposite Magic & Sparkle. That was because it was his job. He was standing, ignored by everyone, holding a ten foot pole with a placard advertising a take-away establishment situated fifty yards away down Queen Street.

This guy was everything the Olympic moment was not. He was isolated, ignored and he looked fucking awful – as you would do standing out in the pissing rain holding a ten foot pole. He was in his late teens and his only consolations appeared to be the fact that his hoodie was keeping some of the rain off and an iPod.

He looked so absolutely without hope that he provided a stark contrast to the sense of achievement and drive being beamed back live from the Games. And herein lies one of my problems with events like the Olympics and the Jubilee festivities earlier this year.

It is the disparity between the celebration of undoubtedly great achievements and the avoidance of the reminders of failure, which far outnumber those achievements. Olympians are, as a rule, brilliant because – much as footballers used to be, say, 50 years ago[ii], they are ordinary people with extraordinary ability. Although it is instructive that the ratio of those from public school backgrounds to those who attended state school among the British team is way out of kilter.

Now I’m not knocking this guy, hell, for one thing he’s got a job. Nor am I criticizing his employers for devising such a soul-destroying occupation -at times like these businesses have got to do everything they can to attract customers – but I am critical of the diversionary nature of public spectacles that intentionally or otherwise divert or distract from the ongoing grind of life in a time of recession, presided over by a sleazy, incompetent government.

Michael Crick, in response to John Major’s assertion that Lottery funding had enabled such a turnaround in British athletics since the Atlanta Games of 1996, asked the question “if state intervention works in one area, then why not others?” Well, for one thing, if the state hadn’t intervened and sold off all those state school playing fields perhaps we wouldn’t have needed so much of that Lottery funding.

That guy on the street corner has about as much chance of attaining the sort of glory that surrounds Olympians as I have of persuading Jessica Ennis to bear my children[iii]. And he deserves better[iv]. So no matter how good tonight feels – I’m writing this after the superlative performances on Saturday evening – there is still, as Voltaire says at the end of Candide, work to be done in the garden. And don’t let’s fucking forget it.

[i] I generally aim to be in the vicinity of Ann Summers if I’m expecting rain

[ii] Stuart Pearce, coach of the GB men’s football team, is actually one of the last links to the days when players had a trade to fall back on after their career was over. When he played for Nottingham Forest in the early 90s he took space in the match day programs to advertise his services as an electrician. But then he had come late to the professional game, starting at Coventry when he about 24.

[iii]  So about 60/40, I reckon

[iv] I probably don’t. I’m bad.

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