London Calling 2012: Olympics through the eyes of a Brit

Sophie O'Neill Washburn Review

A royal wedding, the queen’s diamond jubilee and now the Olympic Games. This year has given rise to a surge of American-style flag-waving among the usually understated Brits. Self-criticism had been cast aside in favor of some un-British national patriotism.

London, and much of the rest of the nation was a sea of British flags, hanging from balconies and in shop windows, draped around necks and shoulders, printed on t-shirts and umbrellas. The atmosphere was so thick with British passion that even the grumpiest and most cynical of people confessed to getting swept up in the excitement of it all.

After a slow start for the British team, a few gold medals in cultured events,  such as cycling and rowing sparked the fire, leading us to one of our most successful Olympic games.  

Brits are from a quaint little island of no more than 65 million people, that few nations expected to be a big contender for the gross amount of medals that were up for grabs this Olympics. Yet it was that underdog label that really sparked our competitive ambition to take us to a higher medal count than that of the much more populated Russia. 

In ordinary times, us Brits are willing to leave the fiery patriotism to you Americans across the pond. The sun set on the British Empire long ago, and people here have traded in that young nations “love of country” attitude, which we now see running through American veins, for worldly wisdom.

Yet the last year and a half has been a plentiful time for noisy British pride. The flags were out in spades for the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, and again for this year’s celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, which marked her 60th year on the throne. Such occasions are about as close as Britain gets to a Fourth of July. Even the few people that want to do away with the monarchy, consisting of the English, Welsh, Irish and my fellow Scots, were drowned out in the excitement. 

The Olympic Games didn’t just give British athletes a shot at glory, but they were also being held on British soil, and competed successfully at that. Complaints of cost overruns, manic security and bad weather gave way to widespread good cheer, shown by the unusually British chattiness of thousands of Olympic volunteers.

There were several manifestations of British patriotism all over the Olympic Park the day I attended. There was a mass of red, white and blue clown-styled wigs and Union Jacks, draped over the shoulders of eagerly awaiting British fans were an all too common occurrence. There were flag-painted faces and even the slightly disturbing sight of two grown men dressed in what can only be described as extra-large British-flagged onesies. The enthusiasm was spread across all generations. 

I had always found it remarkable to see so many American flags on display when I first visited in Kansas. Flags waving around proudly over doorsteps is just something that is unheard of in Britain.

The Olympic Games is one of the few sporting events that feature a unified British team, unlike, for example, soccer tournaments in which England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales field separate squads under separate flags. The red-on-white St. George’s Cross for England, the white-cross-on-blue Saltire for Scotland, the striped green, white and orange for Ireland and the red dragon for Wales.

But here at the London Olympics, the only colors being flown are the prominent red,  white and blue of the Union Jack.

For me, the 2012 Olympics have helped the British reclaim the flag for all the right reasons. It’s pulling us together to make us the Great Britain we once were.