Despite being of an evidence-based inclination when it comes to the study of major events such as the Olympics, when I started out on this line of research way back in 2001, I did a lot of reading around cultural anthropology and was very taken with the work of Victor Turner especially (and for a public policy scholar did the unusual of reading a lot around studies of symbols, rituals and rites of passage). An event such as the Olympics, and its production of moments of cultural climax such as yesterday’s gold medal rush for Britain, is notable for offering a unique place in space and time for collective experience (a theme also prominent in Maurice Roche‘s excellent work on mega-events and modernity) and the suspension of political disbelief. Turner’s idea of liminality is apt here, in highlighting the sense of ‘betwixt and between’ of such moments, ambiguous periods of cultural meaning that are subject to communitas (i.e. a sense of togetherness and belonging, as part of a shared collective experience) and the breakdown of social hierarchies. Such periods of liminality are disorienting to participants (in the British sporting context this might be due to the surprise at sporting success!), making possible new perspectives and ways of seeing. It seems to me that a significant part of the media discourse in response to last night’s Gold rush is focusing on the transitional qualities of these events, both for participants but also for British sport and society more widely (all part of Britain’s wider search for a post-imperial identity, returning to one of the underlying themes from the opening ceremony).
Perhaps more than anything, the tremendous emotional response of the public to the Olympics (whether this feeling is transient or not – and liminal moments tend to be by nature) demonstrates the Pierre de Coubertin’s unique vision in creating the ideology of Olympism, which has a clear humanist tradition in its spirit of endeavour, commitment and achievement — perhaps why even the most unsentimental of sceptics are touched by these moments in the sporting arena. At the same time, one must always remember that such liminal moments of heightened collective experience also provide opportunities for the expression of power and the manufacturing of mass acquiescence, lest we forget the Berlin Olympics of 1936, such that the question is always left hanging of to what ideological ends these climactic moments play to.