Whatever happened to our summer of love?

It is more than a year since Danny Boyle’s unique ceremony opened the London Olympics [27th July 2012].  The enduring legacy of London 2012 may not turn out to be Team GB’s record medal tally.  Nor the investment in London’s deprived boroughs.  Nor even the numbers of young people inspired to take up sports.  Rather, it may be the way the careworn British public were, for a few precious weeks, given permission to feel good about themselves.

Looking back, it‘s easy to forget that before the Games, there was a sense of deep apprehension as we waited to see if it would all go off according to plan.  Transport, ticketing, Olympic lanes, security – there was plenty to worry about.

In focus groups conducted on behalf of the sponsors, one enthusiast captured our collective fear: “I just hope we don’t mess it up”.

Yet, in the event, the Olympics heralded a summer of sporting success in the stadiums and euphoria outside.  The unforgettable impression of the summer is of commuters on the tube chatting happily with enthusiastic spectators and the irrepressible Games Makers.  The atmosphere in the venues too was ecstatic, in a way not often seen among British crowds.  Team GB’s best ever showing, with sixty five medals in total, including twenty nine golds, fuelled the positive mood even further.

Foreign visitors and commentators commented on the upbeat public mood.  David Segal wrote in the New York Times, “The Games have hit this country like an extra-strength dose of a mood-enhancing drug”

And according to The Australian, “There is one simple indication of the success of the past two weeks. That is the feeling of surprise among ordinary Londoners that after all that anticipation and all their doubts; they had pulled it off so well. It is not a sense of ‘We told you so’, more one of ‘My god, we actually did it’”

A year later, the optimism is gone.  The economy is still in the doldrums.  The news is mostly bad. 

But there is hope.  In 2015 England will be hosting the Rugby World Cup.  Some observers believe this is our best hope of recapturing that mood of national celebration.  The organisers, many of whom were instrumental in shaping the Olympics, are not surprisingly, among them.

When the International Rugby Board created the new body, Rugby World Cup 2015, it drew on the key personnel from London.  CEO Debbie Jevans was Director of Sport and Marketing Director Joanna Manning-Cooper was Head of Media at London 2012.  They recognise the crucial lessons to draw from last summer, both on and off the track.  They understand the public mood was a large part of the success of the games.

As Manning-Cooper says, “The British public were magnificent – they showed amazing generosity of spirit, cheering not just the Team GB athletes, but all athletes to the rafters.  The crowds created a magical atmosphere.”

She is also clear that rugby is the sport with the right profile and the spirit to recapture that.  “Rugby has unique values, and we want the tournament to be a celebration of rugby, exciting and inspiring the nation and the world.”

Those unique values are enormously important to rugby fans. 

The game has retained, from its amateur days, more of the Corinthian spirit than other sports.  Despite one or two darker moments, the game is less cynical and less single-mindedly commercial than football, with which it is inevitably compared.

Players, officials and fans tend to be well educated and articulate.  The top stars are mostly credible role models for young people.

Despite its traditional associations and public school ethos, the rugby authorities have been quick to adopt modern methods.  Clive Woodward – himself one of the most creative players of his generation – is credited with shaking up England’s management when he was in charge in the early 2000s.  Sensible developments like video technology, retrospective citing and active assistant referees are long established, unlike football.

The game is underpinned with a sense of respect which is the envy of other sports.  Players typically call the referee ‘sir’.  Unlike football, dissent is rare and, when it doers occur, heavily punished.  For example, in this year’s Premiership final, Northampton hooker, Dylan Hartley swore at the referee.  He was punished with a red card, effectively handing the year’s main domestic title to opponents Leicester.  The Rugby Football Union subsequently suspended him for eleven matches, ruling him out of the British Lions tour of Australia, which would have been the highlight of his career. 

Above all, rugby is characterised by friendliness among fans.  It is quite normal to see supporters of opposing teams sharing a drink in the stands and applauding each other’s teams’ achievements.  Fights are unheard of.  Segregating fans would be unthinkable.  Many rugby followers point to this camaraderie as the defining character of the game and the reason they love it.  On the pitch, aggression can overspill, but is rapidly followed by a handshake.

Finally, the home nations could excel.  England have not quite regained the form with which Woodward’s team  won the 2003 World Cup but, under Coach Stuart Lancaster, they are improving steadily.  Wales have provided the backbone of the touring elite British and Irish Lions, and they won the six nations with a heroic last match victory over their English rivals.

The Olympics showed how a successful home team can lift the nation. Taking all of this together, it’s easy to see why the World Cup organisers are optimistic that they can recapture the national mood of 2012.