Saturday, 11 August 2012

How Olympic heroes exposed the myth of celebrity

So, the Games are almost over.  The BBC’s 24 dedicated channels are almost all obsolete and Sainsbury’s is desperately trying to shift it’s leftover Olympic tat at half it’s original price but still more than double its value.  Above all that, people are beginning to ask the most important question of all: “What did it all mean?”.

The opening ceremony will no doubt be revisited.  Was it left-wing, multi-cultural crap or a vision of a Britain that many of us recognised and more importantly could feel proud of?  I’ll take for the latter, thanks.  And I’ll take the fact that arsewipes like Toby Young, Adrian Burley and Rick Dewsbury found it offensive as a welcome bonus.  Although it’s a shame that outside the Olympic Stadium, away from the prying eyes of the world's media, the British establishment was celebrating the opening of the Games in traditional style by suppressing the ‘dissent’ of 182 people who were simply exercising their legal right to peacefully cycling where they wanted.

God save the Queen. The fascist regime.
Next up was Super Saturday when TeamGB grabbed six golds, three of which came courtesy of the athletes in just 44 scintillating minutes.  At the same time, tucked away on BBC Three (for once just a side-show to the main event) the men’s football team was doing what our footballers seem to do best at tournaments – losing in the quarter-finals.  On penalties.  The contrast was stark and the comparisons all but inevitable and in the world of social media the debate began instantly on Twitter about whether the Olympians had pulled back the curtain to show us that our footballers weren’t so wizard after all.

Eventually the Press caught up and three days later the “veteran footie writer” Hunter Davies issued a “withering blast” in The Sun under the headline “Our Olympic heroes have humiliated arrogant footballers”.  Davies even suggested that “fans should all decide that football will no longer be our national sport.  What is the point of a national sport if we as a nation are no good at it? I think a vote is called for. We should decide that from now on that cycling is our national sport. Or sailing. Or rowing.”  But not swimming, eh?

Concealed within Davies’ lament was another tired myth; the one that suggests that England (and let’s face it although he wasn’t being explicit it always boils down to England) is “no good” at football.  In fact, as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski demonstrated in their book Why England Lose, England’s football team is remarkably consistent and better than average with a win percentage of around 66% more-or-less what you’d expect from a country of such size, wealth and football experience.  But I digress.

The nub of the issue is that increasingly, and to an accelerated degree over the past few decades, we have confused greatness (or heroism) with celebrity.  Our Olympic medal winners have simply snapped us out of this and brought us some much-needed clarity.  In his 1963 book The Image Daniel J Boorstin argued that before The Graphic Revolution (print, radio, TV and although he didn’t know it the internet) “greatness” and “fame” were while not exactly the same thing, pretty much bang on.

Back then, when information couldn’t be easily reproduced and shared in a hard-copy format, people had to rely on the spoken word to relay stories of greatness.  Consequently heroes were larger than life and the stories that surrounded them were exaggerated to make them easy to remember.  They were lowly Roman soldiers who became dragon slayers or demi-gods with flying unicorns.  The process of becoming great was a long one however, so great men (and they were mainly men, with the women relegated to the role of temptress or victim) lived in an idealised and longed-for past.

Over time as news and history could be recorded, shared and preserved with more ease, great men became more real.  They were no longer beast-slayers but reforming politicians or victorious soldiers however they were still far-removed from ordinary people, their achievements setting them apart.  Boorstin argues that, during the 20th Century we discovered that we – the viewer/reader – could, along with the producer/writer, quickly and easily bestow “fame”.  The celebrity had been born and we went a bit crazy, doling out 15 minutes here, there and everywhere.

Heroes were rare.  Their achievements spoke for them and resonated through the decades.  Celebrities are mass-produced, highly commercialised and highly commodified.  They’re cynically used to shift units (of what is immaterial) before being cast aside like a shitty plastic toy on Boxing Day.  For every Cheryl Cole who’s managed to claw their way to some sort of longevity there’s a pile of Steve Brooksteins.

The manufactured nature of celebrity reached its zenith in 2006 when non-celebrity Chantelle Houghton entered the Celebrity Big Brother house (even here the definition of celebrity is loose as the housemates included the likes of Faria Alam whose only claim to fame was that she’d shagged Sven-Göran Eriksson).  In a secret task, Chantelle managed to convince the real celebrities that she was herself a celebrity, guaranteeing her continued participation in the series which she ultimately won thus becomine a genuine celebrity.  An autobiography, her own ‘reality’ TV show, a dating show, a fitness DVD and two marriages to other celebrities followed making Chantelle a millionaire.  She seems like a nice enough person, so who can begrudge her any of her wealth?  However, it’s hard to pinpoint the tangible achievement through which it was earned.

Chantelle exists in the world of entertainment and so does football.  In fact all sports do to an extent.  Even the Olympics, despite its lofty ideals, is basically a 16-day money-making exercise in which a select few companies pay top-dollar to “officially” link themselves to the Games while everyone else does exactly the same but rather less ostentatiously.  Who tops the medal table: adidas, Nike or Puma?  Well, thanks to the USA it’s Nike although I’m amazed they managed to get past Lord Coe.

However it’s football more than any other sport which as crossed the divide into the world of entertainment.  ‘El Beatle’ George Best was the first modern football celebrity and is arguably more famous for his sexploits than his exploits.  (Where did it all go wrong?  When the onset of alcoholism saw him quit Manchester United at the age of 27 perhaps?)  Gazza was the first celebrity of the post-Hillsborough era.  His tears in Turin were one of the key moments that marked the dawn of the new age and he was a pathfinder for those that followed.  However, his temperament and lack of media management meant his image would always be chaotic and by the time he made his Premier League debut in 1998 his star had already been eclipsed by David Beckham's.  All three of them are celebrities but are any of them truely great?  The first two wasted their talent and never fulfilled their potential but because they stood alone as the celebrities of their day their legacy lives long.  By contrast Beckham a very talented and hard working player did fulfil his playing potential but he reaped far greater rewards than he could have expected simply on the basis of his talent. 

What Beckham did though was open up a different path to the one taken by Gazza showing exactly how to carefully manage your image and maximise its value to nth degree.  Numerous other English players have followed Beckham down what has now become a busy road.  All of them are more famous for the products they endorse, or the Wags they’ve shagged or the players they’ve called "a black c**t" (not in a racist way, of course) than the ability we thought they had as youngsters but have failed to demonstrate consistently.  Will Wayne Rooney, for example, ever dominate an international tournament and become a truly world class player?

Because we and the media have colluded in instantaneously creating these footballer-celebrities instead of allowing truly great players to emerge over time, we are disappointed when they don’t live up to the characteristics we expect from great people. When Gazza is asked if he has a message for Norway, he burps into the microphone, when a drunk George Best shambles on to Wogan and is asked by the host what he likes doing he relies: "screwing". And of course both were wife-beaters. By contrast our Olympic medal winners, who have spent years toiling away out of the spotlight, have become famous because of their achievements and even those who have 'failed' to win a medal have demonstrated humility and grace in their hour of disappointment.

Yet because the media is so used to viewing everything through the prism of celebrity they’re struggling to understand the Olympians any other way. Peter Robinson the editor of wrote a piece in the Guardian under the headline “Our Olympic Heroes are guzzling cocktails and going for gold in the pavement sprawl: Are they really role-models for the post-celebrity age?”  He “applauded” Bradley Wiggins for saying he “despised the whole celebrity culture” before sarcastically praising the cyclist for being “so selfless, so noble” in “posing on the Press run” at an exclusive Stone Roses gig.

Shameless celebrity
It seemed to have escaped Robinson’s attention that Wiggins had just won the Tour de France and his fourth Olympic gold medal and thus was entitled to go out and have a little celebration drink (his first in nine months by all accounts).  More to the point the gig was organised by adidas – sponsors of TeamGB, of which Wiggins is obviously a part.  On top of that, there’s no evidence Wiggins got drunk or disgraced himself.  Oh, and one final point, just because Wiggins does attend an event where there are Press photographers, doesn’t mean he is courting celebrity or wanting to become one.

With the unnecessarily mean-spirited opening out the way, Robinson argued that “it’s deluded to suppose the Olympic legacy will somehow fuel or facilitate the destruction of celebrity culture”.  He’s probably right, once the golden sheen wears off and kids all over the country realise that it takes actual work and dedication to become a top-class athlete the majority will go back to just wanting to ‘earn’ fame by the easier root of the celebrity sausage factory although hopefully a few will aspire to greatness instead.

Also within Robinson’s piece, buried deeper still, is an interesting existential point about sport itself when he points out that “Chucking a javelin across a field is no more useful to society than singing a nice song or acting in a hit TV show.”  It doesn’t gel with the current gold-plated narrative that is dominating the news agenda but he does have a point.  When compared to doctors and nurses, firefighters who regularly risk their lives and soldiers (whether or not you agree with the policy behind the war they’re fighting), someone who can cycle round a track a bit faster than everyone else is really neither here nor there.

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