Alphen, Netherlands. 22 August. Sixty-seven Olympic medals, of which twenty-seven are gold, with Great Britain second in the medals table ahead of China. Anyone who thinks sport and politics are somehow separate does not live on this planet. However, there is and must always be a distinction made between the two. Equally, I am not going for a moment to suggest that Team GB’s astonishing success at the Rio Olympics denotes some moral and political superiority of the British nation, not least because there is no such thing. It is precisely the making of such false connections, and the nationalism it engenders that leads illiberal powers such as Russia to engage in the state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes. However, there are two sets of strategic lessons that I believe must be heeded from both the London and Rio Olympics. The first set concerns strategic lessons for the British government to learn about strategy and performance in the coming post-Brexit world. The second set concerns how Britain’s European partners deal with Britain in the coming Brexit negotiations.
First, the strategic lessons for Britain. The decision to improve Britain’s Olympic performance was utterly political. In 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics Britain finished thirty-second in the medals table with a paltry single gold medal. The nation of plucky losers had again pluckily lost. Enough was enough! When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 his attempt to recast Britain as ‘Cool Britannia’ (remember that?) led to some £300 million of mainly lottery money being invested in British elite athletes to improve Britain’s Olympic performance.
This strategy was bolstered in 2005 when London was awarded what was to become perhaps the most successful Olympics in the modern era. The London Olympic Park was delivered on time and to budget with a clear legacy plan enshrined at the core of a well-designed and well-implemented strategy. Although the aim to get more people engaged in sport has proven slightly more challenging, particularly for younger generations bought up on computer games that an oldie like me, brought up on the playing fields of sporting battle and Oxford, does not get.
There are six specific lessons for the British government. The first lesson is an old one. When in a political corner the British remain very good at fighting their way out of it. Second, given a good strategy and belief in an objective Britain is very good at delivering. Third, Britain succeeded at both the London and Rio Olympics by going out and hiring the best coaches irrespective of from where they came. Fourth, the elite performance programmes for British athletes were utterly ruthless funding only those people and sports who continually delivered. Fifth, Britain set out to achieve Olympic success for itself, not to diminish anybody else. Sixth, Britain’s exit from the EU must be for Britain and not against ‘Europe’. Indeed, Brexit must not be about leaving the EU, but re-building Britain’s place in the world as a top five economy and military power (which Britain will need).
Second, the lessons for Britain’s European partners in managing divergence; if Brexit is FOR Britain, further European integration must be FOR ‘Europe’, and not AGAINST Britain. This morning Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and Matteo Renzi will meet on the tiny Italian island of Ventotene. The symbolism could not be more pointed. As Britain basks in a patriotic, nation-affirming Olympic moment the leaders of what is soon to be the rump EU will endeavour to recapture the spirit of European integration the loss of which Brexit has highlighted. Divergence is inevitable but how that divergence is managed will shape the future of Europe.
In 1941, whilst imprisoned by Mussolini, Ernesto Rossi and Altieri Spinelli wrote “The Manifesto of Ventotene”, which called for the creation of a European federal state. Today, the the three leaders will need to consider how to promote further integration without punishing the British for a democratic choice to reject it. It is a serious point because such is the extent of pan-European euro-scepticism that failure could see the entire current crop of European leaders swept aside weakening an already pitifully weak Europe at a dangerous strategic moment. The pressure to ‘punish’ Britain will be hard to resist. The greatest fear in Brussels is that the British actually make a success of Brexit.
Therefore, it is time for cool heads all round. Let Britain enjoy its moment of Olympic glory with the clear understanding all round it is sport, not some alternative metaphor for war. The three leaders on Ventotene could help set the tone for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations and political reconciliation by jointly congratulating Britain on its Olympic success, even if it is through gritted teeth. In return Britain must re-commit itself to being a good partner. That means first and foremost an absolute British commitment to the security and defence of Europe in the twenty-first century.
The alternative is one in which all Europeans lose. Before the great battles with France of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries English and Welsh longbowmen, armed with the decisive strategic weapon of the age, would stand before ranks of French knights holding up the two arrow-pulling forefingers of the left hand to demonstrate their defiance and their firepower. Even today ‘two fingers’ is a mark of English defiance and there will be part of the English character this morning that sees Olympic success as ‘two-fingers’ to those who say Britain cannot thrive outside of the EU. That sentiment must be resisted and its further stoking avoided – Britain is too important to Europe and Europe too important to Britain for a serious set of negotiations to be based on defiance…on either side.
So no, I am not going to make a spurious connection between British sporting excellence and national superiority, because there is none, except perhaps for a moment in the organisation of some Olympic sports (football?). However, I am going to enjoy a bloody good, momentary gloat!
By the way, was Australia at the Rio Olympics?