The dawn of London 2012. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony has eviscerated any lingering public cynicism, while Team GB’s arrival and the Arctic Monkeys’ cover of the Beatles’ Come Together has thrust everyone inside the Olympic Stadium off their feet. Now, as the intense whoops and waves of noise finally subside, Sebastian Coe, the organiser of the Games, stands up to urge the millions watching to appreciate the unique power of sport.
“There is a truth to sport,” he insists. “A purity, a drama, an intensity – a spirit that makes it irresistible to take part in, and irresistible to watch.”
You might snigger – when has sport ever been pure? But at the time Coe’s words prove instantly prophetic. That night Britain dives headfirst into a 16-day Olympic bender.
The numbers are extraordinary. Nearly 49 million combined watch the opening and closing ceremonies. More than 17 million watch Usain Bolt streak away with the men’s 100-metres final. And another 12 million watch the home-made joy of Super Saturday as Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah win gold over 47 eardrum-shattering minutes. That night, a joke goes viral on Twitter. “A ginger, a mixed-race woman and a one-time Somali refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink.”
Across London – sullen, manic, head-down London – everyone appears to carry a permanent smile on their face, as if serotonin has been pumped into the water supply. Writing in the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland even asks whether the Games might “mark the end of Britain’s age of decline”. In the midst of such unfettered joy it seems entirely reasonable.
Coe, it seemed, was right. Sport did have this special capacity to unite, delight and inspire.
Spool forward five years, however, and the picture is nowhere near as rosy. There have been shocking revelations of state-sponsored cheating in Russia, which, according to the Canadian law professor Richard McLaren, “corrupted the London Olympics on an unprecedented scale” – while the sordid tales of corruption in the corridors of Fifa and the International Association of Athletics Federations would put a banana republic to shame.
Meanwhile sport no longer appears quite as irresistible to watch, either. In America, ESPN’s subscriber base has gone from 100m in 2011 to 88m according to the latest Nielsen estimates. Meanwhile Sky, which spends £4.2bn a year to show 126 Premier League games, saw average viewing on its live TV channels fall 14% over the past season.
Increasingly viewers want shorter, sharper, bite-sized chunks of entertainment, on mobile devices too. No wonder some of them are scrambling to revamp their product to avoid being regarded as dull and outdated.
The landscape is changing. So what is sport doing about it?
‘More youthful, more urban’