In parade and protest: athletes’ bodies as national symbols at the Tokyo Olympic Games

In an opening without most of the mass spectacle that has become such a ritual of the modern Olympics, and marred by last-minute resignations over previous abusive behaviour from several core members of its creative team, one element in the opening ceremony of the ‘2020’ Games gave viewers much-needed continuity with fondly-remembered ceremonies of the past – the Parade of Nations, where each competing country’s athletes march behind their flag.

Every Summer and Winter Games since London’s first Olympics in 1908 has opened with a flag parade, though the tradition actually dates back two years further to an oddity of the Olympic calendar – the Intercalated Games held in Athens in 1906, during the brief period when the early Olympic movement planned to hold an extra Games in Greece halfway through every regular Olympiad, and now no longer recognised as an Olympics by the International Olympic Committee.

(The first Athens Games in 1896 did see standard-bearers lead athletes into the stadium before a rendition of the Olympic anthem and a short speech from the King of Greece – but since the 100m dash began immediately afterwards, perhaps that doesn’t count now as a proper ‘parade’.)

The ritual of each team parading behind an athlete carrying their national flag, carrying over the practice of military and uniformed organisations’ parades, could hardly be a more effective symbol of an idea the sociologist Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ in his 1995 book of that name, which scholars have been using to think about international competitions ever since – the idea that the surface of the world and the whole of human culture are perfectly, cleanly and naturally divided into nations, bounded pieces of territory where national cultures are handed down.

So expressive of international competition as a format are flag parades that they have been adopted by other multi-sports events (like the British Empire Games, first held in 1930, which became the Commonwealth Games after the Second World War when the decolonisation of the British Empire began), and even Eurovision – the producers of the 2013 Malmö contest staged one for the first time in what might well have been a nod to the London 2012 Olympics, and the tradition has stuck.

Some past parades have enabled national Olympic committees to take stands on international political issues, such as North and South Korea marching under a unified flag when PyeongChang in South Korea hosted the Winter Games in 2018, or the British Olympic Association’s secretary Dick Palmer marching alone in 1980 to express British displeasure at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – an act of compromise with several sports bodies (and Margaret Thatcher) who had wanted to join the US in boycotting the Moscow Games.

Yet the parade has also started to reveal ways in which the fiction of banal nationalism breaks down. Since the Rio 2016 Games, the IOC has operated a Refugee Olympic Team for athletes who have had to flee their country of citizenship and could not otherwise compete because they are not yet eligible for citizenship of any other country. (Among their 29 members in Tokyo is the former Iranian taekwondoka Kimia Alizadeh, a bronze medallist in Rio, who fled Iran for Germany just before the pandemic began and had not formally competed since 2018; her unusually low seeding meant she met and eliminated the defending champion in her weight class, Great Britain’s double gold medallist Jade Jones, in the last 16.)

Eligible Russian athletes, meanwhile, currently parade and compete under neutral colours as the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ as a result of IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency sanctions against Russia: punishing the Russian state for sponsoring its extensive doping programme but not athletes who have proven themselves to be drug-free, the exclusion of Russia’s flag and anthem will last through the 2020 and 2022 Games. (The many Russian gold medallists we can expect in the meantime, including shooter Vitalina Batsarashkina who’s already won hers, will hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during their medal ceremonies instead.)

Then, of course, there’s the ongoing fudge that means Taiwan has to take part under the name, anthem and insignia of a nominal ‘Chinese Taipei’ so as not to invite protests from China, which has been in place since the IOC recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1979.

Flags are the universally recognised symbols of nations in the Olympic-style parade – but the bodies of athletes, and teams’ choices about how to style them, do just as much symbolic work under the Olympic gaze.

Performance on parade

Even in everyday life, dress and style are imbued with meaning: both consciously and less consciously, we signal aspects of our identity through at least some of our choices about what we wear and our responses to who we expect to see us; other people draw conclusions about aspects of our identity from what they notice about the choices we’ve made, whether or not those are the conclusions we meant. Uniforms, designed to signal a collective identity to insiders and outsiders as well as to create a sense of conformity and discipline within a team, bring with them an extra level of deliberateness altogether.

As dress historian Geraldine Biddle-Perry writes in her study of very early British Olympic teams’ opening ceremony uniforms, ‘[t]here is a need to examine what is at stake when bodies participate in the spectacular culture of nationalism’ – which, in modern Olympic opening ceremonies, they now do in front of some of the largest simultaneous television audiences in the world.

Creating a team uniform for an Olympic ceremony, especially outfitting the flagbearers who will be the focus of the audience’s collective gaze, puts teams and their designers in the position of deciding how to embody the nation on a spectrum from traditional to modern, and how to signal the team’s relationship towards the social institution of world sport. All these considerations influence design as well as the practical factors of cost, climate, and the multitude of body shapes that Olympic uniform designers need to clothe.

For the majority of countries in the Olympics, the spectrum from traditional to modern is also a spectrum from national authenticity to the aesthetics of the homogenising West (even if, in many of their cases, the idea that certain traditions were national emerged from anti-colonial resistance once the Western colonisers had already come) – and, designers will be aware, is simultaneously yet another balancing beam for the nation to perform on in the endless test of how well it has ‘kept up’ with the West.

‘Western’ styles of opening ceremony outfit – the kind that go unmarked as ‘normal’ by most viewers in the West – run on their own spectrum, linked to ideas of modernity and class. Classic ensembles with blazers, pocket handkerchiefs and sometimes even boaters stem from the summer wear of the white British and North American upper classes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the fashion of the elites who founded world sport’s institutions for themselves – and the ideal that outsiders would have to match impeccably in order to assimilate.

(Back in that era during the first few Games, the idea of team uniforms for the opening parade was only starting to bed in: according to Biddle-Perry, even though the US team in 1908 had been issued with matching suits in national colours on the voyage to London, most of the athletes who marched in the parade turned out in ‘everyday leisure attire of tweed knickerbockers or dark lounge suits’ topped with a stars-and-stripes cap, while the British team’s vests were each edged in their own club or college colours, with a Union Flag cricket cap again the only completely homogenous piece of uniform.)

Modern, casual performance wear might suggest the opposite: a technologically advanced and forward-looking nation, secure enough about how the world sees its modernity to be confident in its meritocracy. The simple business suit probably falls somewhere in the middle, while Team USA has defaulted to Ralph Lauren’s country club aesthetic every Games since 2008 (and counting). Opening ceremony outfits have lent themselves to instant nation-branding since before the word ‘nation-branding’ was invented: a famous image from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid shows the US team in shearling jackets and Stetsons and the Soviet team in equally iconic fur coats and hats, with the smaller Yugoslav team in chic alpine winter wear directly between them on the field, exactly where socialist Yugoslavia’s geopolitical identity would have wanted it to be.

Yugoslavia: between East and West

Tradition has its own spectrum too. At one end is full-on reproduction of ‘authenticity’, concealing any adaptations out of plain sight; at the other is showing off the nation’s modernity through how skilfully its designers have been able to incorporate traditional elements into creativity recognisable by global standards – that is, by a Western gaze – as fashionable and contemporary. (‘Folk music’ and ‘world music’ work exactly the same way; at Eurovision, it’s the difference between ‘Hora din Moldova’ and Ruslana).

Post-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, with national folklore infrastructures shaped by decades of Soviet cultural policy that aimed to construct national cultures for each of the USSR’s titular republics, might be some of the most likely to bring traditional dress to the Olympic opening ceremony. Budget constraints and the extreme heat of Tokyo in July/August probably explain why that’s been slightly less in evidence this year (the ‘2020’ Games are likely to see the highest temperatures of any Olympics to date, though who knows how long that record will stand) – certainly compared to 2016, when the Georgian team offered a perfect illustration of the gender politics of tradition, modernity and nationhood by outfitting the men in charcoal suits with folk details and the women in full-on folk-style dresses, reportedly inspired by the medieval Georgian past.

This year’s Georgian team opted for white suits with red arm stripes matching the national flag; Kyrgyzstan carried the metaphorical flag for post-Soviet neotraditional fashion at the Olympics by dressing its athletes in long white embroidered jackets and having its men wear kalpaks, the Kyrgyz national hat, which was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2019.

Athletes and designers from island states in the Global South, meanwhile, know very well that their countries’ costume traditions exist within a complex web of coloniality and exoticism on the global stage. Under colonial rule, these were among the very practices Western missionaries and educators sought to stamp out. Despite that – or equally, in the erotics of colonialism, because of it – both the Caribbean and Oceania have seen their folk costumes relentlessly sexualised for Western gazes and Western profit.

No Olympic flagbearer has created as much anticipation around themselves as a flagbearer as Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua has done since 2016 when he first carried the Tongan flag wearing a traditional ta’ovala around his waist and a bare, oiled chest.

In Rio, Taufatofua had to craft his entrance behind the back of team officials, who reportedly asked him to ‘please just wear the suit’ – suggesting how sensitive they might have been over the risk of being seen as conforming to stereotype rather than reclaiming tradition. (‘I was representing 1,000 years of history,’ Taufatofua told The Guardian in 2019; ‘we didn’t have suits and ties when we traversed the Pacific Ocean.’)

Since then, his flag parade appearances (including the 2018 Winter Games, where he competed in cross-country skiing) might just have made him the most famous Tongan on the planet – though more people probably know him as ‘the topless Tongan flagbearer’ than by his name.

Taufatofua, formerly a youth counsellor in Australia, has used his fame to become a UNICEF Pacific Ambassador and work with the Tongan government on sport in schools – and seems to have inspired Vanuatuan rower Riilio Rii to make a shirtless entrance in Tokyo as well (serendipitously accompanied by an orchestral version of the Final Fantasy theme, no less – as part of the parade’s medley of famous soundtracks from Japanese video games).

The only country in the Global North to incorporate Indigenous dress into its flagbearer outfits is New Zealand, whose flagbearers since the last Athens Games have worn Te Māhutonga, the kākahu or feathered cloak that Māori master weavers spent thousands of hours creating for the team’s future heritage in 2004. As the weaver who keeps it safe between Olympics, Rānui Ngārimu, explains:

For me it is about telling the story of New Zealand and our team from Aotearoa … Many hands went into the making of the kākahu, Māhutonga. Whether it was by the gathering and preparing of the fibres and feathers, and the weaving itself. And many hands went into helping those athletes to become Olympians. That’s what I think about when I see it.

The entrance of flagbearers wearing Te Māhutonga – this year David Nyika, a boxer of Ugandan and European descent (a last-minute switch for rower Hamish Bond), alongside women’s rugby sevens captain Sarah Hirini, who has Māori heritage – also symbolised the extent to which New Zealand has incorporated Māori symbols, tradition and language into its state identity, decentring European primacy more than any other settler colonial nation has attempted. (Nyika wore Te Māhutonga itself, Hirini was presented with another kākahu before the team travelled to the Games.)

Outfitting a pair of flagbearers wasn’t a prospect Ngārimu and her fellow weavers had to think about in 2004 – but the Tokyo Games are the first where flagbearers of both genders recognised at the Games have been allowed and encouraged, though not required. In May 2021 the IOC hailed Tokyo as ‘the first gender-equal Olympic Games ever’, with at least one female and one male athlete on each team, though the United Arab Emirates chose not to act on its invitation to enter a woman in the 100m sprint. (The UAE and Oman both fielded all-male delegations in the flag parade, though Oman’s Mazoon al-Alawi is due to compete in the women’s 100m later this Games.)

Only some 10 per cent of Olympic committees chose not to select two flagbearers (the UAE, Ethiopia, Oman, Samoa, Djibouti, Suriname, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Niger, Nepal, Vanuatu, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Brunei, Mali and Libya only had men; Congo, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and Bulgaria only had women), leaving 90 per cent of the parading countries (including Afghanistan and Iraq, the training grounds for NATO’s implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda) appearing as gender-equal as the IOC is able to imagine.

These 400-odd athletes all carried the weight and honour of representing and symbolising their nations – while, in Olympic ritual, the host nation’s chosen torchlighter carries the extra prize and burden of symbolising the Olympic community’s hopes for the entire Games, and thus the world.

Carrying the torch

The Olympic torch relay, notoriously, dates back to 1936, when the Nazi regime which had inherited Germany’s right to stage the next Summer and Winter Olympics used the Games to attempt to tie together their myth of Aryan racial origin and superiority – which grafted smoothly on to the Eurocentrism of Baron de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympic movement itself.

Though Amsterdam’s organising committee in 1928 had instituted the convention of lighting the Olympic flame at the opening of the Games, in homage to the ancient Games’ tradition, lighting the torch at Olympia and transporting it overland to the host stadium was the invention of the Berlin organisers, who realised they could use the symbolism of flame to cast the Third Reich as the inheritor of classical Greek virtue. Such was its propaganda value that the flame-kindling ceremony at Olympia was even restaged by Leni Riefenstahl for her film of the Games, because she considered the organisers had staged it in an unphotogenic setting. 

Fritz Schilgen, the final torchbearer in the relay, was chosen as what the Olympic Museum euphemistically describes as a ‘symbol of German sporting youth’ – or rather, as any photo of the ceremony makes clear, an embodiment of the Nazis’ Aryan athletic ideal from head to toe.

Post-war Olympics have kept the torch relay but made various efforts to democratise the figure of the torchbearer, partly perhaps to distance the ritual from its Nazi past. A surprising number of final torchbearers have not even been athletes: Norway’s two Olympic cauldrons have been lit by Fridtjof Nansen’s grandson (at Oslo in 1952) and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, in honour of his father and grandfather who had been Olympic sailors (at Lillehammer in 1994).

Montreal’s cauldron in 1976 was lit by two teenagers representing the confederation of Anglophone and Francophone Canada; several other Games have given the honour to young people, and the London 2012 Games, performing (in Olympic terms) a radically cosmopolitan and democratic identity for Britain after the ultra-regimented Olympics of Beijing, split the symbolic role of torchbearer up altogether among seven teenage athletes and sports volunteers.

Tokyo’s first Olympic cauldron, in 1964, was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, an emerging sprinter who had been born in Hiroshima on the day of the US atomic bomb in 1945. For the ‘2020’ Games, held in 2021, Tokyo’s organisers chose a Japanese sporting celebrity like no other – Naomi Osaka, the Japanese-Haitian tennis star and winner of double Australian and US Opens whose family have lived in the US since she was three years old.

In 2020, moreover, Osaka had become an icon of athlete activism through her support of Black Lives Matter. After Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake in August 2020 she temporarily withdrew from the Western and Southern Open to join a strike called by NBA, WNBA and MLS players, and a few weeks later at the US Open came out for each round in a mask honouring the name of a different African American who had lost their life to police or vigilante racism (Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice) – harnessing all the attention that sports spectatorship draws towards the athlete’s body and dress through a compulsory accessory that had not even existed a year ago.

(For Tokyo, Osaka had her hair put into red box braids with white accents echoing the colours of the Japanese flag – another way of affirming her Black and Japanese identities at once.)

Though no other Japanese athlete has a profile like Osaka’s, choosing her as torchbearer also made the Tokyo Games appear to stand on the side of global racial justice, in a country where anti-Black racism is widespread and until recently almost unquestioned (Tokyo witnessed its own Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and Osaka’s activism has had ripples in Japan as well). Indeed, even the opening ceremony reportedly failed to live up to its own ideals behind the scenes – as a Senegalese percussionist who lives in Japan, Latyr Sy, claimed he had been cut from the ceremony with only weeks to go because an official had thought he would look out of place in the drumming display.

Osaka’s stand against the exploitative infrastructure of contemporary sport this year, protecting her mental health by refusing to take part in confrontational press conferences even at the expense of her French Open and Wimbledon places, meanwhile reminds us that behind athletes’ bodily performances there are choices and costs.

Until very shortly before Tokyo, athletes whose teams had become accustomed to taking the knee in collective commitment to the struggle against racism could not be certain whether or not they would fall foul of the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50, which bans any ‘kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda’ across Olympic sites.

After a ten-month review – that is, a review that must have started in autumn 2020 after the summer’s unprecedented displays of athlete anti-racist activism – the IOC relaxed Rule 50 to allow peaceful gestures on the field of play before the start of competition, though podium protests like Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute in 1968 would still be banned. (The British Olympic Association, for its part, had confirmed as early as last October that it would support any GB athletes who chose to protest at the Games.)

Reportedly, the IOC has also prevented its own social media channels from relaying images of athletes taking the knee. With media organisations, national team accounts and athletes themselves all sharing content into the same digital space, that ban’s impact might be limited in the digital publics where Black Lives Matter activism is already being debated (and already showing signs of how national identities like England’s could refresh) – suggesting it might instead have been a containment measure against its further transnational spread.

Coming back full circle to the question of dress, a parallel focus of athlete activism this summer has been the revealing nature of women’s traditional competition outfits in many sports (the German women’s gymnastics team started wearing full-length bodysuits in this year’s European championships to feel ‘the most confident and comfortable’, and have brought them to Tokyo; the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, who aren’t in the Olympics, were fined during their European championships for defying their international federation’s imposition of bikini bottoms; while Paralympic long jumper Olivia Breen was told by an official at the British championships that her Adidas competition briefs were too short).

These cases have predominantly involved white women (though Kim Bui, on the German gymnastics team, has Vietnamese and Lao heritage) – but taken in parallel with the racism athletes like Osaka have been exposed to through social media and the press, and the anti-trans, anti-intersex measures that have prevented some women of colour like Caster Semenya taking part in the Games at all, they hint at how racism and sexism have intersected to produce double standards for women in sport that athletes are starting to name openly but sports institutions are yet to properly address.

Whatever meanings viewers make from athletes’ bodily performances, in parade or protest, the choices that athletes make about how to enact them in the instant of a live broadcast are ultimately their own – and in this second year of the pandemic, they, plus everyone else who has made the Games in person, are the ones who have put their own bodies’ health of the line so that athletes can gather to achieve the feats they trained for and the IOC can deliver its spectacle with only a year’s delay.

Where did it all go wrong? The Windrush myth after London 2012

This post originally appeared at Imperial and Global Forum on 25 April 2018.

Six years ago, in 2012, the dramatised arrival of the ‘Windrush Generation’ provided many British viewers with one of the most moving moments in the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. The dozens of black Londoners and the giant model of the Empire Windrush, which had docked at Tilbury in June 1948, entering the stadium during the ceremony’s historical pageant stood for the hundreds of thousands of black Britons who had migrated from the Caribbean to Britain, which was then still their imperial metropole, between 1948 and 1962.

The moment when the ‘Windrush Generation’ joined the pageant’s chaotic whirl of characters drawn from modern British social and cultural history symbolised, for millions of its viewers (if not those people of colour with more reason to be suspicious of British promises), a Britain finally inclusive enough to have made the post-Windrush black presence as integral a part of its national story as Remembrance or Brunel. Today, however, members of this same symbolic generation have been threatened with deportation – and some have already been deported – because they have been unable to prove their immigration status despite living in Britain for more than fifty years. The Daily Mirror’s Brian Reade was far from alone in wondering where it had all gone wrong since 2012.

What kind of British government would deport the children of the Empire Windrush? Not the openly fascist regime that the National Front took to the streets for in the 1970s, or that Alan Moore imagined taking control of a near-future Britain in his 1988 comic V for Vendetta (written at the height of the Thatcher years). Rather, as most of the British public only realised after the revelations of the Guardian’s Amelia Gentleman connecting dozens of individual stories into a chilling pattern, the answer lies with the Conservative government of Theresa May.

Suddenly, in mid-April, public sympathy mobilised in support of the ‘Windrush Generation’ alongside an eviscerating parliamentary intervention from David Lammy MP, who has taken up the cases of dozens of black Britons who have lost jobs, been refused medical treatment or even been deported. Lammy’s challenge in parliament (and ongoing pressure through Twitter) would force the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to admit that the government’s actions have been ‘appalling’ in forcing potentially thousands of Windrush-era citizens to prove their right to reside in Britain all over again by requiring evidence none ever anticipated they would have to provide.

On 23 April, Rudd promised to help the Windrush generation ‘acquire’ citizenship by waiving application fees and test requirements, though Lammy continued to emphasise that their citizenship had been ‘taken away by your [Rudd’s] government, not something that your government is now choosing to grant them.’

Much of the white British public had not appreciated the harsh realities that black families had seen hitting their elder relatives for months until the plight of the ‘Windrush Generation’ became national news. The policy of extending border immigration controls into everyday life, which government officials themselves termed the ‘Hostile Environment‘, has caused dire consequences for this historic and symbolic group of citizens. Members of the Windrush Generation have lost their jobs because they could not show a UK passport; they have been charged thousands of pounds for NHS care under rules targeting ‘health tourism’; and some have even been detained awaiting deportation to countries they have not visited for fifty years. An unknown number of people, the immigration minister Caroline Nokes suggested last week, have even been ‘deported in error’.

The crisis has even been linked to at least one death. The mother of Dexter Bristol, a Londoner born in Grenada who died suddenly last month aged 57, blamed government racism and the ‘hostile environment’ policy for the stress her son suffered after losing his job and access to benefits: ‘My son is British. We didn’t come here illegally… No one expected this country to turn into what it is now.’

Why has public sympathy mobilised so quickly around this group when thousands of others, including younger migrants from the Caribbean, have been caught up by these regulations ever since Britain’s ‘everyday borders‘ started to tighten? Largely because the Windrush Generation is already a national myth that the British public had been invited to rejoice in celebrating – never more spectacularly than at London 2012.

Yet if the Home Office’s attack on the Windrush Generation feels like a shocking and disorienting reversal, this is because the ceremony’s triumphant story about Windrush was not even what the whole country believed in 2012 – rather, the difference between 2012 and 2018 is a matter of which narrative has had more power to be heard.

By 2012, Windrush had already been worked into many versions of Britain’s national myth – part of a liberal, ‘post-racial’ UK public commemorative culture, a mythic voyage at the beginning of a story about tolerance and progress where Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean and its enslavement of the Windrush Generation’s ancestors could be absolved.

This progress, one must remember, had been hard-won. Black activists had had to campaign for years for Windrush to be taught in schools and marked by local councils, before public institutions began to take it up. Arguably, Windrush commemoration gained momentum after the 1999 Macpherson Report, which had popularised the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe police inaction after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993; museum and heritage professionals’ own anti-racist engagement combined with the impact of Labour equalities legislation to make institutions keen to show they were serving a diverse community by marking Windrush as the turning point (or, more problematically, the beginning) of black history in Britain. Even though in 2012 commemorating Windrush might have seemed like consensus, when black history campaigns first gained pace in the 1980s it had been a radical demand.

Commemorating Windrush as part of Britain’s national narrative meant telling a story about Britain where black Britons belonged on the same terms as white Britons – a story about a Britain which was comfortable with having a Commonwealth not an Empire, and had moved on from the racism the Windrush Generation had endured when they were young.

Remembering how Britishness had supposedly become multicultural and racism had supposedly been defeated, by celebrating Windrush, participants were invited to join in the happy feeling of how far ‘we’ had come.

The London 2012 opening ceremony was a pageant of history-from-below that imagined a nation made up of its oppressed groups as well as its elites: groups like the workers of the Industrial Revolution, like the suffragettes, and like the Windrush Generation. The ‘mosaic history’ Danny Boyle, with scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, depicted through the ceremony, alongside celebrations of children’s literature, the NHS and a modern-minded Queen, readily lent itself to liberal readings. The arts critic Charlotte Higgins, for instance, wrote of Boyle’s ceremony the next day that it was an ‘impassioned poem of praise to the country he [and ‘we’] would most like to believe in.’

The heritage of this mode of representation was demonstrably left-wing, dating back to leftist traditions of ‘radical patriotism’ (including pageants) from between the World Wars, and to the socialist principles that inspired historians like Raphael Samuel to suggest the heritage of ‘ordinary people’ could be a leftist way of linking the public with the national past.

Indeed, one thread even links Samuel’s vision of the nation directly to Boyce: Samuel edited a three-volume collection on Patriotism: the Making and Unmaking of British National Identity in 1989, assembling suppressed and everyday heritage into a national past, and a young Boyce contributed a chapter on the I-Spy books while researching his English PhD.

In 2012, the BBC’s broadcast of a ceremony tugging quirky cultural heartstrings to a cheering stadium made it feel as if the whole country was celebrating the spectacle of a creative, confident and multicultural nation too. And yet, it wasn’t; the story of London 2012 was already being contested on the night itself, when Conservative MP Aidan Burley tweeted that it had been ‘leftie multicultural crap. Bring back red arrows, Shakespeare and the Stones.’

Where public narratives are concerned, the contrast between 2012 and 2018 is not so much ‘Where did it go so wrong?’ as ‘Which narratives had the strongest platform then and now?’

And narratives about Windrush do relate directly to the fact that the Home Office has deported black Britons who came to the UK with British passports before their islands became independent, because national identity itself is a story about who belongs. Or rather, national identity is a story about who belongs unconditionally on the land inside the nation’s borders, and whom the hosts might graciously extend the right to stay.

The Windrush Generation who came to Britain, and the children they have had there, spent decades hearing racists like Enoch Powell and the National Front openly call for them to be repatriated. The slogan of sending black and Asian Britons ‘back home’, to the Caribbean or South Asia, implied that they had no right to belong safely ‘at home’ in Britain at all.

The very members of this symbolic generation who listened with dread as young people to the possible consequences of Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968, had to relive the experience a few weeks ago when BBC Radio 4 had Powell’s words read in their entirety by a star actor: a broadcast that the journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff and many other British people of colour argued only normalised Powell’s rhetoric, empowered the far right, and represented a ‘particularly jarring… resurrection’ just as the Home Office was ‘unceremoniously booting out’ some of the very people who had arrived on the Windrush or the ships that followed.

Today, when many of the Windrush Generation have retired – and some might have looked back and thought they were living in a better country than the Britain they had known in their youth – tens of thousands of them now find they cannot prove their citizenship to the degree that ‘hostile environment’ policies require. After all, why would they have needed to before, outside dystopian nightmares? Not only has that nightmare become a reality; it might also grow more chilling yet with the news that, as long ago as 2010, the Border Force destroyed thousands of the very landing cards that could have proved when they arrived in the UK.

Their situation has moved the British public so much more than other inhumane deportations because of the power of the Windrush myth itself.

Aidan Burley, tweeting in 2012, had wanted to turn the clock back on multiculturalism. So did the UK Independence Party, on the ever larger platform the BBC gave it after the 2014 European Parliament elections; so did many of the voices backing Brexit. In 2012, the idea that that progress could be thrown into reverse, and Britain in a few years’ time could become ‘more racist’ not less, was very far from most people’s minds apart from those who longed to make it happen.

Yet visa rules for non-EU citizens became even tighter than New Labour had made them; Brexit stripped 3 million EU citizens of freedom of movement rights they had never had to think that they would lose; and Caribbean-born elders are facing now what Powell and the National Front threatened them with in their youth. The threat to deport the Windrush Generation does not just disturb the myth of multicultural Britain that grew between the 1990s and 2012 – it has torn it up, and some have watched the reversal of the myth with glee.

‘The Gay World Cup’?: the Eurovision Song Contest, LGBT equality and human rights after the Cold War

This is an adapted version of a talk I originally gave as part of LGBT History Month at the University of Hull in February 2014.

This post starts with thinking about a phrase that gay journalists in Britain have started to use to refer to the Eurovision Song Contest: the ‘Gay World Cup’. The comparison that Benjamin Cohen (the founder of Pink News) and Scott Mills (the BBC Radio 1 DJ who now commentates on Eurovision semi-finals) have made between Eurovision and the World Cup in recent interviews is only one of several nicknames that imagine Eurovision as a ‘gay’ version of a ritual celebration: for a German journalist quoted in Peter Rehberg’s essay on ‘queer nationality at the Eurovision Song Contest’, Eurovision is the ‘gay Christmas’ (Rehberg 2007: 60), and one of the gay men Dafna Lemish interviewed during her research on Eurovision fandom in Israel similarly called it ‘Passover for the homos’ (Lemish 2004: 51, £).

All these other events are mainstream social celebrations – heteronormative celebrations – that have traditionally contained very little space for queer people and their relationships. The predominant culture around men’s football is one of straight masculinity; the centrality of family reunion to the contemporary Christmas also makes it, for many queer people, an uncomfortable time. (The queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote that Christmas is ‘the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice’ to shape Christmas in the image of the family.) For Eurovision to be the ‘gay World Cup’ or the ‘gay Christmas’ is suggesting that it’s had a special place in some LGBT or queer cultures, at least among gay men, as an annual focus for reunion and celebration, as of course it has.

By the 1980s, Eurovision had already become the basis of a transnational fandom created largely, though not entirely, by gay men, celebrating the kitsch aesthetic to be found in many Eurovision performances as well as the diversity of European languages and musical cultures that the contest has contained. (One among dozens of possible examples, Salomé’s performance of ‘Vivo cantando’ in 1969, is below.)

In the past 15 to 20 years, however, the creators of some Eurovision entries and even the organisers themselves have begun to acknowledge Eurovision’s importance in gay culture and to use Eurovision performance to openly advocate for LGBT equality. This pulls Eurovision into a wider contemporary context: the international politics through which ‘LGBT equality’ started to become a symbol of European identity, sometimes even a matter of national pride, after the Cold War.

But to steer clear of a simplistic progress narrative, we also need to think critically about those things.

Integration and enlargement

When the European Broadcasting Union, an association of national television broadcasters, founded the Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, it showcased the new broadcasting technology that made it possible to relay TV signals live from one broadcaster’s territory to another, but also reflected other initiatives for co-operation between western European countries that were underway in the mid-1950s.

Economic and political organisations such as the European Coal and Steel Community (founded 1950), the Western European Union (founded as a mutual defence pact in 1954) and the European Economic Community (founded 1957) aimed to connect European states, especially France and Germany, so tightly together that they could not go to war. Though separate from these intergovernmental organisations, the EBU’s song contest was a cultural counterpart to them – showing that the different popular musics and languages of European nations were part of a shared European entertainment culture.

Eurovision Song Contest participants in 1956

The seven founding member broadcasters at the 1956 contest were all from Western Europe (Italy, France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland). By 1959 Sweden and the UK were participating, and by 1961 Eurovision had sixteen participants including Yugoslavia, the only Communist country to take part (one of many ways that Yugoslavia aimed to demonstrate how different its Communism was from the Soviet bloc, as Dean Vuletic has shown in book chapters which unfortunately aren’t online). The parameters for EBU membership, accepting broadcasters from any country with a Mediterranean coastline, meant Israel could join in 1973 (one North African country, Morocco, has also taken part – but only in a year, 1980, when Israel was absent).

Eurovision’s greatest expansion, however, came after the Cold War, when broadcasters in post-socialist eastern Europe wanted to participate. The disintegrations of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR increased potential competitor numbers further. In 1993, seven ex-Communist countries including three of the new ex-Yugoslav states applied, pushing the total number of entries to 29 and forcing the organisers to introduce a pre-qualification round through which the new east European applicants had to pass. After experiments with relegation systems in the 1990s where the worst-performing countries would have to sit out a year, the EBU in 2004 introduced a semi-final so that every broadcaster expressing an interest would be able to take part. At this point – the same year that the European Union was adding ten new members of its own – Eurovision had 36 countries involved; further new participants, including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, have taken the record to 43 in 2011.

Eurovision Song Contest participants in 2011

Although not an identical timeline to European political integration, the expansion of Eurovision does parallel the transformation of the EU through gradual eastwards enlargement.

From subtext to text?

Many of the popular music genres that broadcasters showcased at Eurovision lent themselves well to camp – a way of seeking out and celebrating the overdone, exaggerated and extravagant in popular culture that had already inspired gay fandoms for opera (the origin of the diva) and musical theatre.

Watching Eurovision through the ‘lens’ of camp originally meant projecting new readings, hidden readings, even resistant readings, on to what was happening on screen. In the late 1990s, however, the queerness of Eurovision began to move from subcultural camp to open visibility – a development that can’t be separated from the improvements in the social and legal position of lesbian, gay and bisexual people (as long as they were cisgender) in many European countries. In a book chapter on LGBT equality and Eurovision, Robert Deam Tobin points out that the European human rights framework, especially the European Court of Human Rights but also resolutions by the European Parliament, was frequently a catalyst for this legislative change (for instance, ruling against unequal ages of consent in a case brought against the UK government in 1997).

In 1997 and 1998, queerness at Eurovision became not just implied but visible. Paul Oscar, who represented Iceland in 1997, was the first out gay man to take part in Eurovision (with the most sexually suggestive staging of any Eurovision performance until then). Iceland, which legalised homosexuality in 1940, was one of the first European countries in the 20th century to do so; the idea of Iceland as a European leader in LGBT equality is now part of the country’s national historical narrative, as is the case for other Nordic countries and the Netherlands. Oscar’s entry Minn hinsti dans (My Last Dance) only came 20th, but represented a landmark for gay visibility at Eurovision.

Dana International’s Eurovision victory in 1998 was even more significant, as a landmark for trans visibility – not just at Eurovision itself, but in many of the countries where Eurovision was broadcast. By 1998, Dana had been a well-known singer in Israel for several years, and her participation in Eurovision was the biggest news story in the run-up to the 1998 contest (though often reported in a sensationalistic way). Her song Diva – doing as much as possible to communicate with diverse linguistic audiences despite the rule at the time that most lyrics had to be in countries’ official languages – was amplified by the personal narrative of overcoming prejudice to succeed that many viewers would already have known about before the performance began.

Open acknowledgement of queer identities in Eurovision performance continued taking contested steps in the early 2000s. Sestre, a transvestite cabaret group from Slovenia, performed in drag in Eurovision 2002 but had had to face a transphobic media campaign at home, in which the European Parliament briefly intervened.[1] Russia was represented in 2003 by its most successful pop export of the time, Tatu, whose selling point was suggesting to their audience that the two singers were lesbians in a relationship. While the group annoyed producers by turning up late to rehearsals in the week before Eurovision, the focus of media speculation was whether they would try to kiss on stage and whether the organisers would allow them to. (They didn’t.)

Simultaneously, the Eurovision format was undergoing changes: massive increase in audience sizes from theatre-size to arena-size events; larger stages with much more complex backdrops and lighting; first one and then two semi-finals, eventually extending the televised Eurovision over three nights of a week, in order to accommodate the growing number of participant broadcasters; and in the background, a change in executive supervisor, so that since 2004 the post has always been held by a male Scandinavian broadcasting executive (first Svante Stockselius from Sweden, later Jon Ola Sand from Norway).

The international politics of equality and human rights as seen from Scandinavia thus become directly relevant to how Eurovision as an institution has approached LGBT equality over the past ten years, given the framework of values and public ‘common sense’ in which Stockselius and Sand were used to working before they became responsible for an international event.

Ukraine’s 2007 entry Dancing Lasha Tumbai, by Andriy Danilko’s comic character Verka Serduchka, epitomises a contemporary mode of Eurovision camp made possible by the new technical possibilities for creating a performance there – even though, Galina Miazhevich argues (£), it would be more accurately interpreted through a lens of post-Soviet self-irony than Western kitsch.

(Verka would like you to know that she was, under absolutely no circumstances, singing ‘Russia, Goodbye’.)

Marching towards Pride?

By the mid-2000s, in many western European countries, the institution of Pride with a capital P had shifted from an oppositional event fighting for queer people’s presence in public space, towards an officially recognised event celebrating our presence there. However, a critique goes along with this institutionalisation of the Pride march or festival as a cultural form: in such circumstances, is there a risk that Pride becomes a celebration of how tolerant ‘we’ are as a nation while silencing more radical viewpoints on the relationship between queer people and the state?

At Brighton Pride in 2012 (in a city where LGBT equality has the same kind of symbolic value in Brighton’s urban identity as it does in Scandinavian nationalisms today), for instance, the march organisers forced the Queers Against Cuts group to move to the back of the march, where they had to march surrounded by police. This, and the direct participation of police forces and the military in many western European Pride marches, is a long way from the early Pride marches which were expressly protesting against the police and the state.

For some, this is a sign of true equality; for others, a sign of the state finding a way to assimilate lesbian and gay people while leaving intact as many other norms as possible.

The most successful queer performance on a Eurovision scoreboard since Diva, however, did not come from Scandinavia or the Netherlands but from Serbia, where LGBT rights have been a much more controversial question. Although Marija Šerifović had not spoken publicly about her sexual orientation when she won Eurovision in 2007 (she came out as a lesbian in 2013), the performance of her song Molitva (Prayer) clearly steered viewers towards understanding it as queer:

LGBT equality, and campaigners’ right to hold marches in Belgrade, has been one of the issues that polarises contemporary Serbian politics most – with the Serbian Orthodox Church and far right movements openly opposing campaigns, and the Serbian authorities generally preferring to ban or obstruct Pride parades rather than commit to protecting them from far-right attacks. Beneath this polarisation is a narrative about Serbian national identity that in a way both sides share: that Serbia has always been a nation faced with the choice to turn towards Europe and democracy or away from them, towards tradition and Orthodox Christianity. In this framework too, LGBT rights become a symbol of Europeanisation and modernity, as Marek Mikuš shows in his research from the last successfully held Belgrade Pride in 2010.

In the mid-2000s, Serbia’s national broadcaster had been striving to use Eurovision to promote the idea of a new, European Serbia, which had moved on from the era of nationalism and Slobodan Milošević. Molitva confirmed that this self-representation appealed to Eurovision audiences. As Šerifović continued to celebrate her victory in and for Serbia, however, she was assimilated by (and assimilated herself into) discourses of national unity rather than becoming a figure of radical subversion.

Winning Eurovision in 2007 meant that the 2008 contest would be held in Serbia. At that time, Pride campaigners in Belgrade had not been able to hold a march since 2001, when skinheads had broken up the first attempt. The hope of the organisers, and of many fans who visited Belgrade for the final (such as Monty Moncrieff in this blog post from last year), was that Eurovision would help to spotlight the issue of LGBT equality in Serbia, and in more recent host countries – Russia and Azerbaijan – where foreign media similarly placed the authorities’ repression of LGBT people on to the agenda before the contests began. (Moscow authorities had not permitted a Pride march for three years before Eurovision was held in 2009, and a small march on the day of the final was broken up by police.)

This has presented Eurovision organisers with a similar problem to that faced by the International Olympics Committee in dealing with repressive regimes – indeed, as Paul Jordan notes, the BBC commentator Graham Norton described Moscow 2009 as ‘the Beijing Olympics of Eurovision’ during the broadcast – except that the right to host Eurovision goes to whichever broadcaster has won the last contest, giving organisers far less control over where the next edition will take place.

Concentrating on the Baku contest, Milija Gluhović argues that Eurovision has come to ‘offer an arena for advancing demands for the recognition and social inclusion of LGBT people in Europe, especially countries […] where the position of these sexual minorities remains precarious’ (2013: 200). At the same time, however, he recognises a new ‘rhetoric of sexual democracy, in the form of LGBT rights and freedoms’ in post-9/11 western Europe that amounts to ‘a new sexual nationalism’, directed particularly against Islam (2013: 196). He therefore offers a caveat for equality and human rights campaigners, including those in Eurovision:

We should remain wary of an uncritical acceptance of this language of freedom, including sexual freedom, considering the paradox that human rights and humanitarianism can be seen to operate as tools and strategies of contemporary imperialism. (2013: 198)

Ding dong! The transnational symbolism of equal marriage

For mainstream lesbian, gay and bisexual campaigns today, the primary symbol of progress is equal marriage – first introduced by the Netherlands in 2000, and now available in ten European countries, while many others recognise forms of civil partnership. (How far equal marriage benefits trans people depends on whether they are easily able to obtain gender recognition, including, in England and Wales, on the individual impact of a ‘spousal veto’ on gender recognition that was written into the new equal marriage law.)

In the USA, equal marriage was the theme of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2013 hit Same Love, the song that the producers of the 2014 Grammys turned into an on-stage mass wedding. (Brittney Cooper’s critical reading of Same Love and the Grammys performance argues that Macklemore has presented himself as a lone progressive voice in hip-hop in a way that erases African-American rappers who have already been pursuing similar themes.)

The Finnish representative at Eurovision 2013, Krista Siegfrids, performed a marriage-themed song, Ding Dong, which she also intended as a message to the Finnish audience before an upcoming referendum on equal marriage in Finland. Eurovision performance and Anglo-American chart music have now converged to the extent that everything on stage, including the Desperate Housewives-like Americana, could equally have involved Katy Perry. The number of Scandinavian pop composers and producers now working with US stars suggest that it isn’t a matter of Americanisation as such but a more two-way exchange, even if the amount of cultural and economic power on each side is unequal.

Unlike in 2003, nothing stood in the way of Siegfrids kissing another woman on stage during her performance in Malmo.

Equal marriage returned as a symbol of progress and tolerance in the interval, when the Swedish comedian Petra Mede performed a cabaret act poking fun at national symbols and stereotypes of Sweden. Along with the elks, meatballs, and allusions to Swedish films, her act included a moment where she played a minister marrying two grooms. (The very next lines happen to be ”follow our example, come and try a sample of our Swedish smorgasbord’.)

In 2014, when Copenhagen is hosting Eurovision, Copenhagen Pride will be heavily involved in organising activities, and the City of Copenhagen will arrange wedding ceremonies for foreign tourists during Eurovision week to promote the fact that Denmark allows lesbian, gay and bi people to marry.

With Scandinavian broadcasters very much in the forefront, over the past ten years Eurovision has found itself transformed into an institution that explicitly aims to promote human rights, including LGBT equality.

Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi

The idea of LGBT equality as a national value was in the foreground of advertising in countries such as the UK, USA or Canada during the Sochi Winter Olympics, with rainbow colours turning up in sponsors’ images where during most Olympics one would expect to see a national flag.

Chobani Yoghurts ad in rainbow colours

By using the rainbow in ads celebrating national Olympic teams, these advertisers were ostensibly challenging the state homophobia of Putin’s Russia, which passed a law banning the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ in 2013. They also reinforce the idea of LGBT equality as something that ‘we’ have and ‘they’ don’t – reducing the complex politics of queer rights in any of these countries to a simple national us/them.

In the run-up to Sochi, the UK’s Channel 4 did not miss an opportunity to make fun of Vladinir Putin: its chat show The Last Leg has been mocking Putin since last summer, when the host Adam Hills started suggesting that Putin (of camouflage pants and topless photos fame) should be taken up as a gay icon.

The day before the Sochi opening ceremony, Channel 4 started showing a new ident, Gay Mountain. With the punchline ‘Good luck to everyone out there in Sochi’, Gay Mountain operates musically as a rearrangement of the Russian (and formerly Soviet) national anthem, but in every other respects is meant to be as un-Russian as can be:

Gay Mountain invites its liberal British audience to participate in the idea that Russia is somewhere Other, with different values, which can be liberated through the power of camp and irony and rainbows and disco. There’s a problematic narrative of western rescue here, and also the same message about national identity that has come through the rainbow advertising: the reason LGBT equality is in the foreground for that team at the Sochi Olympics is because Russia doesn’t have it. (Though, ironically, Gay Mountain makes me think of nothing so much as a Verka Serduchka video.) In a way, it’s reminiscent of the superpowers’ representations of each other during the Cold War, where both blocs were anxious to prove that they were the leaders in human rights and quality of life and that the opposing bloc was failing in those things.

In contemporary Scandinavia and the Netherlands, in Canada, in the USA and the UK, advances in LGBT equality have become a matter of national pride.


On the face of things, this would be worth celebrating. In an article on queerness in Eurovision, Peter Rehberg asked in 2007: ‘Is the Eurovision Song Contest […] a rare occasion where queer people have access to a sense of nationality?’ From the point of view of 2014, such occasions, in Europe, in Canada, even in the USA, might not even be so rare.

But these celebrations are still masking marginalisation.

For one thing, the idea of ‘LGBT’ equality, even of one common LGBT struggle against oppression, is an idea that aggregates several different forms of oppression, some of which are much more socially visible (and, in contemporary Western society, much easier to challenge) than others. I found it very difficult to recognise bi visibility properly when I prepared the talk this post is based on – there’s still been no canonical ‘first bi performer’ in the history of Eurovision, let alone a first bi performance. The specificness of being bisexual, rather than being gay with a capital G, has never had its own space in Eurovision or the subculture around it.

Moreover, mainstream lesbian and gay or even LGB campaigning today often fails to recognise the interests of trans people and sometimes actively works against them (an ongoing difficulty, for instance, with Stonewall UK, at least under its previous leadership). The Eurovision interval act from Malmo 2013 contained an unfortunate example of its own: a couple of minutes before the marriage scene, another segment included Petra Mede singing the words ‘In all of our cities, though men don’t have titties they can still stay at home to raise the kids’ – erasing at a stroke the fact that trans men do exist and some trans men do have breasts.

This matters because when state authorities take action based on the same cissexist ideas, it causes harm to trans people. Even though Sweden has made so much of LGBT equality as a national value, until 2012 the Swedish state required trans people to be sterilised before it would recognise their gender. Denmark similarly came very close to deporting Fernanda Milán, a Guatemalan trans woman seeking asylum, whom the Danish authorities had initially housed in the men’s section of a refugee camp.

Is LGBT equality more of a symbol than a commitment on the part of contemporary European states? That’s the implication of what several authors such as Sarah Bracke and Fatima El-Tayeb have written about Dutch public discourse on LGBT rights after 9/11. In the Netherlands, right-wing politicians have argued that a Dutch tradition of gay rights is now under threat from homophobic Muslim immigrants (Bracke); when the Dutch state interacts with queer Muslims, it only seems to recognise a white Dutch model of sexuality as legitimate, leaving queer Muslims in the Netherlands in a very difficult position (El Tayeb). The Netherlands, as well as the UK, regularly deports queer asylum seekers to their countries of origin where they face persecution. Racism, Islamophobia, cissexism and the politics of border control all limit the commitment to queer rights that these countries show; yet LGBT equality comes back into the foreground when the nation needs to present itself as progressive in relation to the rest of the world.

This kind of dynamic is what the theorist Jasbir Puar has called ‘homonationalism’: the transformation of LGBT equality into a Western benchmark for evaluating whether or not states or peoples are modern enough to be allowed their own sovereignty or treated as real citizens.[1] In particular, as Sara Ahmed also notes, this involves an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam. Sarah Schulman, in the same vein, described Israel’s self-promotion as an LGBT-friendly state as ‘pinkwashing’, which she defined as ‘a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life’.

During the Sochi Olympics, the feminist blogger Flavia Dzodan, who lives in the Netherlands, wrote on Twitter: ‘Why I speak abt homonationalism? Bc while EU media is spinning wheels of gay rights in Russia, queer asylum seekers are summarily deported’.

Eurovision takes place within the same global politics of competition, spectacle and celebration as the Sochi Olympics, or indeed the World Cup. As an institution, it has embraced the idea of LGBT equality much more than the organisers of any other international event, because of the history through which Eurovision became an annual celebration for a particular gay culture in the first place.

The same states that now heavily promote LGBT equality as a symbol regularly fail to back it up through policy. To make equality, let alone liberation, more than a symbol, Eurovision’s organisers will need to actively challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic remarks by commentators and contestants (something that will need particular vigilance this year when the drag artist Conchita Wurst competes for Austria). But they will also need to go further: to be sensitive to the international politics of equality and activism, and to recognise the separate forms of oppression that sit underneath, and sometimes operate between, the letters in the LGBT umbrella.


[1] Though not quite the first drag performers in Eurovision after all: Ketil Stokkan had two members of a Norwegian drag troupe as backing vocalists in 1986.

[2] International Relations scholars have been refining and rethinking this concept recently – for instance, Momin Rahman in his new book would rather work with an idea of ‘homocolonialism’ – but it’s still an important starting point for thinking about the global politics of LGBT rights today.

Can we build Jerusalem?: overthinking the Olympic opening ceremony

Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony left me in the same position I began to explore in yesterday’s blog post: what kind of subjectivity as a spectator can I have now that thinking critically has become an integral part of how I enjoy a spectacle?

As rare an event as the Olympic Games opening in the country where you live is imagined at every step – by the director, participants, media, commentators, and the host-country audience – as a national focal point. That sets down an extra biographical layer of meaning: where were you when you saw the opening ceremony? A future oral history project or Mass Observation study could easily ask that question.

In the seven years since London was awarded the Olympics, my own expectations about where I would be on the night of 27 July 2012 have changed many times and radically, in ways I couldn’t even have conceived of in July 2005, when I hadn’t received funding for the PhD that ended up changing my life course. Consciousness of how I might be feeling in any other of those places pervades my experience as a spectator. What extra emotions would an imagined symbol like the shipping forecast, or something much more material like the sight of Richmond Bridge, evoke in me if I was still living near my family, or if I was working outside the United Kingdom now?

Before I write about what I found successful in the ceremony, I want to acknowledge the things I found most problematic (and to acknowledge also that there will be much more to say than this, which my own privilege and positionality will certainly get in the way of me seeing):

What to do about the Empire. The first sequence depicts the destruction of the British countryside during the Industrial Revolution; yet the even greater devastation wrought on others’ lands to produce the wealth with which the awe-filled men in stove-pipe hats were able to commission the smokestacks and municipal achievements is silenced. I don’t know how you would represent this, though acknowledging imperialism as a historical wrong while pretending that it causes no harm in the present (a criticism made of the Sydney Olympics) would be no better.

Celebrating disruptive protest while contemporary protesters were being detained a few miles away. The historical pageant included the women’s suffrage movement (led out by a descendant of Emmeline Pankhurst)  and apparently – although I’m not sure the cameras picked this up – the Jarrow march against poverty and unemployment. At the same time, up to 100 participants in a Critical Mass cycle ride through London were being kettled and detained by police for breaching instructions not to cross north of the Thames. This isn’t Danny Boyle’s fault, but takes the ceremony closer to the kind of bread-and-circuses simulacrum some people feared the whole thing would be (‘we are representing, simplifying and celebrating things that we are actually taking away’).

The peacemakers handing the Olympic flag to the military. As illusory as the myth of the Olympic truce is, if we’re going to play on this, shouldn’t it have been the other way round?

Black-faced demons. No. Not even if they were meant to be Dementors. There are other ways to do that.

But there were also choices I appreciated, and that deserve some further thought.

The downplaying of war memory. The myth of the nation coming together under German bombing in the Second World War became a significant part of public culture during Britain’s contemporary wars, gathered pace after 7/7 and accelerated to its current velocity under Brown and Cameron. It’s meaningful to Britons who experienced and suffered in the War, but its contemporary use is very often an attempt to graft moral responses to the Second World War on to contemporary conflicts that are much more contentious. Incorporating a massive representation of the Blitz in the historical sequence would have been very tempting, and in keeping with the dominant public narrative in Britain. War memory does appear, but in more subtle ways: the poppies in the cornfield; Britain’s industrial heritage interrupted by the bowed heads of Remembrance; the Chelsea Pensioners. (And unfortunately, during James Bond’s helicopter flight over the Thames bridges, a snippet of the Dambusters March. Really? There?)

Remembering the victims of terrorism without evoking threat, or what must therefore be done to protect us from it. The ‘memorial wall’ that appeared at the end of the pageant appears primarily, to a British audience, as a commemoration of the Londoners who died on 7/7 (there’s been a suggestion that it could also be read as a commemoration of the victims of Munich, whom LOCOG has not yet memorialised officially); the staging consisted of an interpretive dance piece by Akram Khan and a performance by Emeli Sandé of Abide With Me (a hymn traditionally sung at the FA Cup Final).  Again, at the security Olympics, there are many worse ways this could have been done.

Celebrating the NHS. This sequence in a children’s hospital – incorporating J K Rowling as the storyteller, and Mary Poppins flying in to defeat the villains of children’s literature – could have come across as precisely the kind of simulacrum that Boyle needed to avoid (and that I was afraid it would turn out to be). Yet it contained the potential to be, and much of the sub-audience to whom I’m connected through social media have read it as, something much more subversive: blogger Steve Walker, for instance, even read it as the centrepiece of a ‘coded message’ to the coalition government. In the age of internet memes, this section produces some powerful resources, such as this image put out by UK Uncut before the ceremony had even finished:

Rowling’s own views on tax and the welfare state, set out in this interview from 2010, play nicely into what is being evoked here:

I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall.

The participation of Tim Berners-Lee. Not because he’s from the same country as me, or because he’s associated with a university I worked for for four years; but because he invented this thing, and then chose not to profit commercially from it. Or, as his (genuine) Tweet during the opening ceremony read: ‘This is for everyone.’

The flame ritual. Olympic flames are traditionally lit by a celebrated Olympian from the host country; rumours before this year’s ceremony suggested Roger Bannister, Steve Redgrave, Bradley Wiggins, or even the Queen. The London flame was lit by seven teenage athletes, each nominated by an Olympian from the past; the cauldron, invisible throughout the ceremony, turned out to be made up of the copper vessels that had accompanied each of the 205 national teams into the arena; strength in diversity, none greater than another.

Probably by coincidence, given the timescales involved, this ended up resembling the aesthetic of the film version of The Hunger Games: a multi-racial group of teenagers, dressed in black tracksuits, standing in a circle, around something that looks very like a cornucopia, lots of flame around, and the tallest athlete happening to look incredibly like Alexander Ludwig/Cato. But there’s a deeper sense in which this felt like a Hunger Games moment, since what resonates most with me about the books is how the author prevents her protagonist becoming the classic superhero who brings complete public and private resolution; in turning away from the figure of the single heroic Olympian, there’s something of that here.

The complete absence of Wenlock and Mandeville. I intensely dislike the Olympic mascots. Their origin story slips easily into them representing ‘the last two drops of British steel’. Their design, deliberately mimicking CCTV cameras, is even more unfortunate when the main public critique of the London Olympics has been around the intensification of surveillance and security, with concerns over when or if all the extraordinary measures in Stratford will be rescinded. One unfortunate Mandeville, brought to life size during a public art project, had its glaring eyebrows turned into the brim of an imperial military pith helmet.

If there’s another one of these shows next century, celebrating a from-below pushback against neoliberalism, something that looks very like Wenlock is what Mary Poppins will be fighting against.

Final thoughts

Danny Boyle’s programme notes have been circulating on Twitter since Riz Ahmed photographed them from his copy of the programme. Boyle asks in the final paragraph, playing on the themes of William Blake’s Jerusalem that inspired his staging of the ceremony:

But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring notion that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication. A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone.

Is this enough to ignite a political fightback against neoliberal policies and the dismantling of the state? One of the Hull Labour MPs, Karl Turner, certainly implied this last night when he retweeted a photo of the programme notes and another user’s comment: ‘Can we build Jerusalem?’

(I won’t be surprised if riffs on this appear all through British political communication in the next few years – both from those who are more or less in sympathy with it and from those who are not. Today, however, I’m not sure ‘building  Jerusalem’ is the right language to use. It echoes the ‘shining city on the hill’ syndrome that gives legitimacy to US exceptionalism; more to the point, imagining a Jerusalem in Britain seems to appropriate the material, political Jerusalem 2,000 miles away.)

What was dramatised last night was a series of achievements: public, industrial, cultural, literary, musical, political. I agree with many of them and want to feel inspired by them; but I don’t want to be inspired by them on a basis that excludes others because of some essential aspect of themselves. All these are achievements, but considering the global context in which they were achieved, can we ever think of them as solely British?

Seeing athletes as transnational migrants: the book that changed how I watch sport

In a recent column on politics, migration and the Olympics, Laurie Penny asked:

 The Games are supposed to showcase a spirit of internationalism and foster a sense of community that crosses borders. The important questions here are: what kind of community, and what kind of borders?

I’ve enjoyed watching sport since my mid-teens, well before I knew I was going to write or teach about nationalism, and I used ideas about sport as cultural performance in some of my research on popular music and identity in Croatia; for years, I’ve been used to thinking through those ideas as I watch, even though I’m not supposed to be ‘at work’. But reading Thomas F Carter’s book In Foreign Fields: the Politics and Experiences of Transnational Sport Migration (Pluto, 2011) last year changed the way I would start answering Penny’s question.

Recently, that question has been most publicly visible in the UK in the arguments about who is – or should be – eligible to belong to ‘Team GB’. The Daily Mail created a controversy over overseas-born British athletes, terming them ‘plastic Brits’, in spring 2012 when Tiffany Porter, who had represented the USA at junior level, was appointed team captain for the World Indoor Championships. The Daily Telegraph subsequently identified that 60 of this year’s 542 UK Olympians had been born abroad.

International sporting competitions depend on fixed notions of citizenship: only citizens of a state can represent it in international competition. The transitional periods imposed by some governing bodies, during which an athlete changing nationality cannot compete, suggest that sports administrators as well as spectators view the idea of changing one’s citizenship solely to be able to join a different team as illegitimate. We conceive of international teams as made up of the very best of their nation, that is, of the people who are ‘naturally’ there.

In the 21st century, even more than before, the framework for international representation in sport has failed to keep up with the way that people live their lives. Tiffany Porter is one of many competitors whose life circumstances have left them eligible to represent more than one country. Porter has held dual US/UK nationality since birth; other team members have qualified for UK citizenship by marrying a UK national or by fulfilling residency requirements in the UK.

Carter’s achievement in In Foreign Fields is to write about sports competitors as working transnational migrants – no more, no less. As workers, they negotiate (and sometimes evade) the immigration regimes of the states they move to and through. Their capacity to meet management demands for labour determines whether or not they are able to continue living in a foreign state; their family networks often benefit from the migrant member’s mobility, yet sometimes are endangered or even destroyed by a migrant’s decision to move.

From my twin points of view as an athletics spectator and a researcher who now also writes about mobility, seeing professional sport worked into a migration studies paradigm was a lens-shifting moment:

an anthropological approach to the study of transnational migrants and migrant labour has centred upon the contexts in which labourers navigate alien social landscapes that are no longer linked to a singular locale or contained within a nation-state, but have become transnational social orders within which people struggle to make lives for themselves. At times they are helped, while at others they are hindered, by the international movements of capital and the activities of states over which they have no control. This is as true for transnational sport migrants as it is for labourers in other industries. It just appears that sports migrants enjoy the perks of elite existence because of the coverage of celebrity sports stars in the media, a vision replicated in academic studies. (p. 11)

One case study in In Foreign Fields, of a sports professional with a particularly complicated migration trajectory, comes from the event I’ve followed most closely as a spectator. In my own consciousness she had figured as one of several adversaries of my favourite competitor in the event (by choosing to follow this other athlete, I’ve undoubtedly identified with her, although she isn’t from my own nation), before she vanished from visibility as a result of her problems transferring citizenship. Writing about her case, Carter observes:

the notion of dual citizenship simply does not exist for national or international governing bodies of global sport. […] For the IOC, IAAF and others, citizenship is mutually exclusive: one cannot be both Cuban and Sudanese. […] Díaz Roque’s use of citizenship as a form of capital enabled her to improve her own economic situation, albeit at the expense of sundering family ties. (p. 94–5)

More recently, Díaz Roque (Carter’s pseudonym for an elite competitor whom followers of the event may well still recognise) has achieved her long-term aim of acquiring UK citizenship through spousal reunion, and has been caught up in – and responded to – the tabloids’ ‘plastic Brits’ controversy. This competitor has been particularly hard hit by a representation framework that does not make space for the ambiguity of national belonging; even Tiffany Porter, who trained in the USA and whose CV may appear more straightforwardly that of an ‘import’, has a demonstrable personal and lifelong connection to the United Kingdom. As spectators, none of us know Porter well enough to know what part the UK has played, or might play in the future, in her life outside work. We just don’t know; nor would followers of Díaz Roque’s event have known the details of her private life if they hadn’t become public property through the media.

Porter and Díaz Roque are both part of transnational families: they can be seen to be connected to the nation they now represent through routes independent of their work. What seems to bother spectators most is the idea that a national team can ‘buy in’ success by recruiting people who have nothing to do with the nation.

For athletics fans, the extreme example of ‘buying a team’ is Qatar, which recruited long-distance runners from Kenya in 2003. Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui both became Qatari citizens, changing their names to Saif Saeed Shaheen and Ahmad Hassan Abdullah and reportedly receiving up to $1 million.

Building a Qatari team this way appears to violate the idea that a sports team should be the optimal expression of national physical achievement. But where does this idea stop?

National sports federations with the required financial resources routinely hire foreign coaches and engineers, and send their athletes to training facilities abroad. No British track and field competitors will take part in the Olympic opening ceremony because they are still at a training camp in Portugal; UK Athletics’s head coach, Charles van Commennee, is Dutch. There is no expectation here – except perhaps when it comes to England football managers – that teams should be restricted to what is ‘authentically’ available in their home country. The discomfort is much greater when the person whose body performs the activity is perceived as not belonging than when the people who have helped to get that body into top condition are avowedly foreign.

The build-up to the London Olympics has seen critiques of the politics and economics of sport begin to spread out to a wider audience: this blogger, for instance, argues that Olympic branding and organisation are capable of making a broader public angry about commercial and security practices that only activists have been concerned with until now. Is there a potential for migration studies to use the Olympics as a bridge to public engagement in the same way, or are spectators in international sport too invested in imagining the nation as they already perceive it?