Realising our Imagined Community

Reflections on the Olympic Games


In celebrating our success in the London Olympics, we have experienced and engaged in acts of unisonance. This is defined as ‘the simultaneous response of many people to emblems of the nation’, and it is described by Benedict Anderson in his book ‘Imagined Communities’, where he suggests the singing of national anthems as an example of this phenomenon.  ‘No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance… occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community.’ (Imagined Communities, p.149, Verso Books 2006).


Perhaps this is what we British have recently experienced when celebrating success at the London Olympics.  We have become part of an ‘imagined community’ which, for Anderson, came into being with the evolution of capitalism and nation states two hundred years ago. Coincidentally, this was also the starting point of Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony: the Industrial Revolution. Facsimiles of its chimneys rose menacingly into the London sky, just as the originals once did, heralding the emergence of the national identities that make up Olympic competition.


The build-up to the opening of the London Olympics was grounded not so much in the two preceding centuries as in the two preceding weeks. If there was unisonance, then it was that peculiarly British mix of self-deprecation and pessimism with which we revelled in the G4S shambles, the possibility of striking border guards, and the seeming inevitability of gridlock on London’s streets. Even our national obsession, the weather, seemed to want to contribute to the dissonance.


On the eve of the London Games, Jonathan Freedland anticipated the opening ceremony as a defining moment for our national identity. He wrote: ‘These Olympic weeks will offer answers to a clutch of questions that have nagged at us since the last time London hosted the Games in 1948. What exactly is our place in the world? How do we compare to other countries and to the country we used to be? What kind of nation are we anyway?’


As the Games reach their conclusion, the answers to those questions are remarkably different from what we would have anticipated a fortnight ago. We know that we are a nation that is surpassing expectations in its tally of gold medals, and that we have responded to the achievement of our athletes with almost unprecedented national euphoria. Despite civil war in Syria, the economy and the coalition in crisis, every newspaper and TV bulletin is dominated by news of Team GB’s latest successes, as though nothing else matters. The excitement on London’s relatively smooth-running transport system is palpable as commuters seem vicariously to absorb the anticipation of travellers journeying to and from Olympic events, or give spontaneous high fives to members of the uniformed army of volunteers. Something extraordinary has transpired in this country that, just two weeks ago, seemed to be revelling in Schadenfreude, anticipating gloom and doom.


So now the question for this imagined community that has basked in the reflected glory of these sporting triumphs is not who are we, but what can we become? How did our sportswomen and men reach such great heights and how can we consolidate that success, learn and grow from it? All the way through the build-up to the Olympics the talk has been of ‘legacy’. The success of British Olympians can breed more than future sporting success. We have seen what can be achieved with dedication, commitment and support – professional and financial – and, just as importantly, how those making such achievements (and those who didn’t quite) do so with humility, grace and charm.


What a change from the culture of cynicism that seemed so prevalent a month ago, and that seems to be so rooted in our weary British world view. These Olympics have shown us that there is another way.  Talent can be nurtured rather than suppressed or derided. Success can be celebrated rather than envied or despised. Effort can be acknowledged and rewarded rather than dismissed or mocked. Instead of providing a platform for arrogance and arousing jealousy, skilful achievement can be celebrated with modesty and received with gratitude. This can – must – be true of every aspect of human endeavour, not just sport.


And it can be celebrated by all of humanity, not just those who happen to share an imagined national identity. When Usain Bolt won the 100 metres, it felt as though his achievement belonged to the whole human race, not just to Jamaica. His victory was a moment of true unisonance. We were not participating in an ‘imagined community’, but celebrating a genuine example of human striving and achievement.


That is what the Olympics represents: ordinary human beings achieving extraordinary feats, aspiring to reach new heights, to push back boundaries. The commitment to that challenge embodies what is best and most noble in human life. Within a few hours of Bolt’s victory, a sophisticated piece of human technology successfully landed on the surface of Mars. Another example of how the human drive to progress, to succeed, is an integral part of our make up. With the right encouragement and support, nurturing and vision, dedication and humility, the areas of our lives, our societies, our planet into which this drive can be transplanted are limitless. To share such a vision would be perfect unisonance. Hard to imagine, perhaps, but these Olympic Games have shown us what we can achieve and how to realise it.