Olympic legacies: human behaviour and what we can learn from mass spectacles

Posted on 24/09/2012


Olympic games London 2012 opening ceremony

My sofa is slowly returning to it’s original shape after an intense 6 weeks of televised sports. Already, this week feels dead (from a sporting perspective). How am I going to manage without a constant supply of victories or festivals?

I’ve no idea what London 2012 will ultimately bring to the city or the UK as a whole, aside from the medals. One thing I do know is that I’ve learnt a few things from watching the games:

1. Seeing is believing.
Until now I had no idea how powerful it can be to witness something. I’m not really a sports fan so I’ve never felt the buzz of going to see your team play live or witnessing a spectacular victory.

With the Olympics it was different: I wanted to soak up as much as possible. It was in my home city and unless I plan on moving to Brazil, this was the only time in my life it would happen. I wanted to feel the atmosphere, and live every medal.

I wasn’t the only one watching all the events on repeat. People who are normally careful with their money were paying a hundreds for last-minute tickets. Others had travelled thousands of miles for a share of the action, no matter how short. Spectatorship, whether in person or remotely days later, is the drive to share an experience

We all wanted our share of the experience,and the only way was to see it. There’s something powerful in the “visual knowledge” that comes from this.Create a once in a lifetime spectacle and people will do what they can to witness it, whether it’s live, on TV or online.

2. The exclusivity of being involved
(Your own personal Olympics)

We’re not all world-class athletes but that doesn’t mean we don’t play a part. There were such a myriad of ways to get involved, the Olympics was essentially a mass participation event.

How does this differ from any other games? London 2012 was set up as a mass participation event with thousands of volunteers, helpers and supporters. The torch relay strafed the country, resulting in Olympic hysteria as far away as the Shetlands as millions turned out to watch it pass. The opening day of the games even started with bell ringing across the UK. Danny Boyle’s comment “this is for everyone”, actually turned out to be true.

Why does this matter? Aside from being able to be there on the day, different forms of participation allows people to shape their own memories of the event. We each have our own unique version of the games which gives us something to share and hold onto.

3. Why we always want the big picture

Jumbo-tron in one direction; rowing course in the other

My English teacher once asked how we preferred to watch films in the cinema. Some like to sit at the front, some in the middle and others would choose the back to get a bit more perspective.
Only a few people liked to sit up loose to the screen. Although you don’t get to see as much (the screen’s bigger than your field of vision), you’re totally immersed which in some ways gives you a better experience.

I don’t think we’re used to experiencing the world close up any more. The idea of witnessing a sports event and not re-watching it on TV or mobile is almost unthinkable. We expect there to be commentary available for everything we do, and explanations for every occurrence. Even at the events i went to, people would be half watching, half using their phone/ tablet device to check the medals table.

This is not a bad thing; it just means that the “perspective” element is a must. We rely on having access to multiple camera angles, background and travel info all the time, so much so that it’s now an expectation, a part of the overall experience. The world is difficult to comprehend up close and we prefer the bigger picture.

Maybe these three things have always been the case. They might seem obvious but sometimes it takes something unique to happen before we can recognise them.