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As an Olympicphobe I will not be protesting against the Games

Even for those of us who do not enjoy the Games, there are no real good reasons to object to them

By on Monday, 23 July 2012

Olympics - Olympics Final preparations

A literary friend of mine has cautioned me to stay off two subjects. One is the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, and the other is the Olympic Games. Her advice is sound. There is too much written about both subjects already. There is no need for any more ink to be shed. So, I am not going to say anything about either: if people are enjoying Fifty Shades or the Olympics, background moaning from someone indifferent or hostile to one or both is hardly interesting.

Everything that needs to be said about the games has been said by our own Dr Oddie  and by the great Andrew Rawnsley in yesterday’s Observer. I do recommend Mr Rawnsley’s article which makes compelling reading, quite apart from being a model of what a good opinion piece should be.

It is worth bearing in mind that when the Pope visited the United Kingdom at the invitation of the government back in 2010, a whole load of people protested. They did not protest about the government’s decision (well, not much) but rather aimed their protests at the Catholic Church and at the person of the Holy Father in particular. There was also a great deal of talk about how the Vatican was not a state and other such matters.

Protesting about public events is always going to be problematic. Here’s why.

First of all, if a group of enthusiasts want to watch diving, or beach volleyball, or a Pontifical High Mass, that is up to them. They are free to do so. Such activities are voluntary, and no one who is forced to take part. These enthusiasts are exercising their right of freedom of association, their freedom to hang out with like-minded people, and their freedom to spend their own time in their own manner. No one could possibly object to that, could they?

Well, they could. They could claim that, for example, turning Horse Guards Parade into a beach volleyball venue is both ludicrous, undignified and a waste of government money. That charge does have some force, but it is hard to quantify the ludicrous or undignified nature of beach volleyball. It is best if we merely say that tastes differ and that we must all learn to practice tolerance in matters of taste.

But what about the money side of things? Money is quantifiable. If the beach volleyball (or a Papal Mass) costs a certain amount of hard cash, the bill for which will be picked up by the taxpayer, then the taxpayer can surely object.

But this is the Scrooge argument. I might not like beach volleyball, but why should I object to paying for it, when the government regularly underwrites many things that I may or may not like, and which I never protest about, such as the opera, or our palatial embassies around the world, or the civil list, or Trident? Why protest against this particular government spending just because I do not like it? And isn’t it a bit much to protest at spending on beach volleyball as a waste of money when, generally, I may be opposed to all cuts in government spending?

Let’s remember that beach volleyball enthusiasts pay tax too – isn’t it time that they, like opera-lovers, got their cut of the government spending pie?

Then there is the inconvenience argument. Yes, a lot of people who would otherwise have been able to walk through Horse Guards are now not going to be able to do so thanks to beach volleyball. But this needs to be seen in context. London’s public spaces and roads are constantly being subject to restrictions because of large public events such as State Visits, and, of course to large scale rallies and protests, as well as celebrations in Trafalgar Square. This happens regularly because London is the capital of the United Kingdom and thus the natural place for such big events. That is what capital cities are for. These events are one of the great reasons to live in the capital, as well as one of the annoyances. But we have to take the rough with the smooth: we may love the Trooping of the Colour; putting up with the volleyball is the reverse side of the coin.

Finally, we need to consider the rationality of protest. This has been done for us by Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. Here he talks of what he calls incommensurability – the fact that people speak languages that are mutually incomprehensible, despite using similar words. He says:

It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. ‘To protest’ and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else.

But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestor can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.

The language is dense, but the point, I hope, clear: protest is a form not of rational discourse but self-indulgent talking to yourself. That is why, even though I am an Olympicphobe, I shall not be protesting. In fact, like Andrew Rawnsley, I wish the Games, now we have got them, well. I may even watch that beach volleyball myself, if I can get someone to explain me the point of it.

  • Hamish Redux

    I understand that the point of beach volleyball is to allow seedy old men to stare at scantily-clad girls. Don’t think I’ll bother.

    I’m safely 200 miles away, but it seems to me that a lot of Londoners feel that they’re under siege. What a pity we couldn’t have made an equally big event of the Pope’s visit.

  • JByrne24

    Thanks Father, for the link to the “five-ring circus”. 
    It’s the sheer waste of so much money – the quantity is enormous. And the thought of 700 inflated, pompous BBC gasbags driving the-on-loan high-spec BMWs in the “Zill” lanes every day……… .

    I’m well over 100 miles away – but we have olympic (small “o”) “routes” designated for some sailing events – one town with its roads a building site for 9 months – and no end of re-surfaced roads all over the place (which didn’t need re-surfacing for years) for the “riding on a bike” event (or something) or to look good for the sake of visitors. Wimborne Minster has a new traffic system (a forest of traffic signals, roundabouts and road-furniture) on an olympic route which nobody wanted (neither local MP nor people – nor the poor rabbits in a large colony) which is larger than the town-centre of Wimborne!!!

    You’re right, I think, about the volleyball Hamish – those tickets all sold out quickly. I’ve read however that some ticket sales have been very poor – with tickets re-issued so that only front seats are occupied, giving the TV viewers the (wrong) impression that the stadiums are full – when they are in fact half empty.

    And Hamish, we have lost (in the South of England) a very dishy girl (Alexis) weather presenter whom the BBC have put on olympic journalist training and duty for the last 6 weeks or so. So no Alexis on local BBC TV. Will she come back? As well as being profoundly beautiful, she is also that very rare person: a BBC presenter who ISN’T very, very annoying.

  • Oconnord

    The Olympics are just a “throwback” to our past. It is a celebration of hunting and martial skills. The older sports are simple, but the newer harder to put in that context. All rely on targeting, stamina, teamwork and physicality, things that would have been imperative to a hunter or soldier.

    So even beach volleyball is understandable. Lithe, attractive people showing their prowess, to attractive mates. All to the shouts of supporters. Clan, tribe, county or country. The idea is the same, it’s basic and it’s common. We are as strong as our champion, so don’t mess with us.         

  • Ave Verum

    While not protesting the Olympics, I am rather concerned by the emphasis on win, win, win – on medal chasing.  We should celebrate ALL who have achieved selection to the teams – simply for the dedication to their sport and the example this gives to us all.  The Olympics should, and can be, more than medals and national pride.

  • Honeybadger

    One of the points and purposes of the Olympics is that is ‘not in the winning, but in the taking part.’

    The ‘win, win, win’ mentality often makes athletes turn to taking banned substances, which is something that has blighted the games for the past few decades.

  • Honeybadger

    I thought the idea of including Beach Volleyball in the London Olympics (or indeed any Olympics) was a ludicrous idea.

    They should bring back the tug of war – a real sport!

    On the subject of making the Pope’s Visit an equally big event, I agree with you.

    Having said that, though, would we want to see various multinationals advertising as being ‘The Official (service) For The Papal State Visit’?

    If the world was not so hostile towards the Roman Catholic Church, there might be some companies who would stick their head above the parapet.

    In the current climate, no.