Exactly one year on from the London riots, the UK is embracing two multicultural heroes: the Somali-born Mo Farah who won the men’s 10,000 metres on Saturday, and Jessica Ennis, queen of the heptathlon whose father is a painter and decorator originally from Jamaica. Already Farah and Ennis are being called role models. In a perfect world, their gold medals would change views about black and mixed race Britons. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen.
On the face of it, Farah seems the perfect figure to challenge racist stereotypes about black British youths, and to offer those youths someone to emulate. In origin, he resembles many of the young black men from poor backgrounds who were disproportionately represented among the rioters. Farah – who came to Britain aged eight, was raised in tough Feltham, got into fights at school, and once jumped naked from a bridge into the river Thames after a night out – might have been one of them had life turned out differently. Instead he discovered discipline and running.
Sadly, his success and Ennis’s will probably serve only to confirm racist views of black people. The black person as athlete (or musician) is itself a longstanding racial stereotype. The Nazis dismissed the triumphs of the black American Jesse Owens at the Berlin Games of 1936 by saying he had animalistic physical gifts. Countless black athletes have succeeded since Owens. Their triumphs do not change stereotypes. Read more
The stands at Olympic events are dotted with small children. Their parents have usually kitted them out in expensive replica kits. It is clearly all meant to be a great family day out, a treasured memory and so on. But, usually, it does not work out like that.
The problem is that the average five year-old has limited patience with watching the heats for the women’s shot put – even if the tickets were fiendishly expensive and hard to get hold of. Young children are also bad at dissembling. I was in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday morning, as Jessica Ennis closed in on gold in the heptathalon. The adults in the crowd were going crazy, as she prepared for the long-jump. But the child behind me, made it clear that he was much more interested in eating a Kit-Kat. As the morning wore on, his hapless parents were ground down by their toddler’s repeated question – “Is that one Usain Bolt?” After a couple of hours, Bolt actually did appear to run his heat. But the kid had long since interest and was now campaigning to go for a wee. Read more
Reporters are issued with a backstage pass to the world. They peek behind the scenery and the facades of art, politics, war or sport. They see the players in these various pageants without greasepaint and often lit in unflattering ways. Much of the mystery that woos the world on the other side of the limelight has its magic stripped away when the smoke and mirrors are in the reporter’s line of sight.
It is not surprising that cynicism is a common by-product of the access-all-areas world journalists inhabit.
It is a cumulative process, too: sufficient exposure can make even the extraordinary seem routine. Sports reporters more than most experience a cycle of events: football seasons; World Cups; Olympics – all with dates inked on calendars far in advance. After a while, even genuine expressions of delight at a sporting performance can seem forced; cynical curmudgeonliness is the path of least resistance. The venality that surrounds the Olympic movement makes this especially easy.
So let this not be considered a small thing: last night in London’s Olympic Stadium I saw a man I have known for 20 years, a hardened sports hack, a doyen of his trade, a man renowned for his “gloryschmertz”, an observer fiercely proud of his aloof neutrality in the most partisan of atmospheres, this man I saw leap to his feet and clench his fists and roar Mo Farah down the back straight to win the 10,000m. And my friend is not even British. Read more