How did Britain go from being reluctant Olympic hosts to full-fledged embracers of the Games and what they say about the country? Mark Earls, coauthor of I'll Have What She's Having: Mapping Social Behavior, explains it all for you. His reflections follow - thanks, Mark!
We Brits are a skeptical bunch. The difference between our North American cousins and us was once explained to me by a colleague thus: “We Americans,” she asserted, Manhattanite to her toes, “we still believe s*** – sometimes too easily, sometimes foolishly, but sometimes for the better. You Brits always seem to be wondering whether someone is ‘having you on,’ ‘pulling your leg,’ or ‘winding you up.’”
So it’s curious to watch how – in the space of a matter of weeks – we have shifted from a nation uneasy with the huge expenditure of hosting the Olympics, the enormous expectations and all the brouhaha that goes with it – a nation of doubters, naysayers, and grumblers, if you like – to one which seems to have decided to jolly well enjoy it!
Of course, it has helped that our British athletes have done so well, thanks to well-planned long-term development in selected sports (largely those involving sitting down, it must be said, and somehow a Briton has worked out how to win a singles final at Wimbledon); and, of course, that (as yet) nothing much has gone wrong with the organization (apart from losing a couple of coaches early on).
It’s clear that this shift is not a result of each of the 60 million British citizens weighing the pros and cons of the Games independently of those around them and – on balance – deciding that the Games are not nearly such a bad thing as we’d previously thought. Or even that individuals were persuaded merely by their own experience. (“Now that I’ve tried the Games, I realize what I’ve been missing.”) Indeed, most of us have had no direct experience of the Olympic facilities at all.
No, it’s not people making their own minds up independently, but social learning, copying: the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect, as we call it in our book of the same name. Copying is what’s bringing about this shift in opinion: we are all responding to the excitement of those around us, to their change of mind, to what we think of their experiences.
Curiously for a sporting event, the sport itself is less important than the social interaction around it. Let’s be honest: before these games how many of us actually knew anything about the sports we’re cheering for? How many of us had any idea what a “keirin” (the discipline that brought cyclist Sir Chris Hoy his record six gold medals) is? The sport – supposedly the meat of the Olympic sandwich – has become what American blogger, Hugh Macleod, calls a “social object” (after Malinowksi’s Kula studies):
The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if you think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that ‘node’ in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.
Big sporting events are ideal for providing this kind of platform: as an arena for “I’ll Have What She’s Having,” gathering people together in physical spaces which allow us to sense the reactions of those around us. And this can lead to good things emerging and spreading around the world (the “Ola” or “Mexican Wave” emerged globally at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico as people saw each other participating in this simple and transitory game). For much the same reason, sporting events have also been the focus of terrorist campaigns – Munich being the worst example in my memory.
But this shift in attitude from skeptic to enthusiast didn’t happen overnight; indeed, until recently it all looked rather dismal. Not only did we start off feeling negative and distrusting, but we’ve had a long build-up, and our negative opinions have had plenty of time to firm up (thanks to ticketing scandals, budget overruns, transport disruption, etc.). So how have the organisers overcome this negative mindset?
The stroke of genius on the part of the organizers lies in really embracing the Torch Relay around these “isles of wonder”: over 70 days and several thousand miles, the inhabitants of all kinds of towns, villages, and communities were gathered together to watch locally selected individuals pass the torch along the line. A pre-echo of the larger Games experience and a primer, street-by-street, for the “I’ll Have What She’s Having” effect to take place and for our enthusiasm to spread? Maybe.
(Of course, the cynic in me wants to point out that the torch relay is neither an ancient tradition nor a modern coinage: Carl Diem (d. 1962), the architect of the 1936 Berlin Games, introduced this innovation. Now there’s an interesting source to copy…)
And, lest we forget, movie director Danny Boyle’s extraordinary “bonkers” opening ceremony spectacle which – like a good social object always does – lit up the conversations brighter than any literal flame could.