It’s perfectly natural that the organisers of London 2012 should want to place our great Olympians at the very heart of the production. Sebastian Coe, latterly ennobled, was once one of the world’s finest middle-distance athletes before proving himself an equally effective operator amid the bureaucratic machinations which have brought the whole event to fruition. Sir Steve Redgrave, rowing gold medallist at five separate Games, and fellow knight of the realm Sir Chris Hoy, the much garlanded cycling hero, have both enjoyed prominent roles. You may have spotted Dame Kelly Holmes prevalent in the presentational frenzy too. One ubiquitous presence, however, is rather more difficult to explain. Just what exactly has David Beckham got to do with any of this?
Beckham, of course, is the local lad done good, although he had to go to Manchester, Madrid and Los Angeles to achieve his not inconsiderable fame. With East End roots, it was unthinkable that this anointed cultural touchstone of modern Britain could be ignored, despite the fact that football, the vehicle in which he rode to such celebrity, is a peripheral outpost of the Olympic family. While the corporate police have been out in force to protect the commercial monopoly status of Big Macs and Mars Bars, ‘Brand Beckham’ has imposed itself very stealthily front of shop, as neat a piece of product placement as there ever was. Whether it has been rubbing shoulders with visiting dignitaries, staring out from advertising hoardings, graciously loaning his image rights or, most ludicrously of all, actually trying to qualify for the team, this formidable self-publicity machine has never been far from the action.
His credentials for association with this global celebration are hideously tenuous. In his sporting prime he could lay claim to being the best right-sided crosser of a ball in Europe. He wasn’t a bad free kick expert either although, like others with similar talents, a certain amount of mythologising has done his legend little harm here. Of his former Manchester United team-mates he had neither the longevity of Ryan Giggs, nor the dynamic presence of Paul Scholes. Roy Keane and Gary Neville possessed leadership qualities he did not and, though his professionalism and work ethic remained admirable, the inevitable distractions of his very public lifestyle obscured the achievements on the pitch. He was the first player to be sent off twice whilst representing his country, and will be remembered as much for wearing a sarong, collecting hairstyles and tattoos, and prancing around the pages of ‘Hello!’ magazine with his trophy wife, as for THAT goal against Greece.
Yet all of this is irrelevant; this is the Olympics we are talking about here. In spite of its anachronistic, albeit diluted, presence in the jamboree, the gluttonous juggernaut that is football speaks a different language to the fencer or volleyball player who pursues his or her athletic vocation through sheer love and enthusiasm, the original sentiment of the Games you might say. The Beckham effect is not to inspire a generation, to use the somewhat glib slogan casually spewed forth all too readily, but rather to provide a soothing balm of familiarity and stability, like the Royal Family in wartime. So while the best laid plans descend into a chaotic miasma of public sector strike threats, G4S security cock-ups and not being able to recognise the North Korean flag, Beckham floats gently above, assuaging the doubts. In this context, his haughty congratulations to Bradley Wiggins on winning the Tour de France are akin to a telegram from the Queen.
What the Olympic organisers would love to represent is a Britain free from the shackles of the past. Tony Blair, in his doltish way, once dubbed it ‘Cool Britannia’, and in the days before he invaded Iraq there was briefly a sense of a nation in flux, becoming more at ease with its increasing diversity and modified role in world affairs. Sadly, far from being the vibrant melting pot of new ideas and tolerance encased in a proud, tourist-friendly heritage, the notion on which opening ceremonies are based, this ‘new’ country remains in a problematic gestation period. We live in a society which venerates Jeremy Kyle and fat Gypsy weddings, Ford Mondeos and the Daily Mail, where direct action involves not so much manning the barricades as breaking into Footlocker to steal a pair of trainers, less to run like Jessica Ennis than to posture like Jessie J. And so you begin to understand how Beckham fits into this tepid reality. He embodies the failure of the grand vision to engage its subjects. Having stood for so much for so long, it’s far easier to stand for nothing at all. The bland, the innocuous and the mediocre are the new punk rock. London’s calling and it’s, well, pretty vacant.
The ambassadorial calling, that sanctuary of the superfluous, is a comfortable habitat for Beckham. Being well practised in the etiquette of the vapid, he is a safer bet in this regard than, say, Boris Johnson. From Jesse Owens and his two fingers to Hitler, through Tommy Smith and John Carlos and the black power salute, to the showcase of Chinese economic muscle, the Olympics have always had a strong political angle. A snapshot of the flower of youth, each Games has reflected the spirit of its times. The dangerous uncertainties which provide the backdrop to London 2012 have engendered not a new idealism but a retreat into the apathetic and the trivial. As the epitome of a directionless age, David Beckham is its perfect spokesman. There can surely be no-one better to light the flame.