The curtains have gone down, the samba dancers have trailed way and the Olympic circus travels onwards. Here in the UK, the last two weeks have seen a wonderful celebration of athletic talent at Rio and with still more to come. For many athletes, they have not only achieved their best but have also repeated their successes of previous Olympics. Heartfelt congratulations to all!
As well as sporting prowess, the Olympics has also become a platform for celebration of international spirit, humanity and compassion. And in the last two weeks, we’ve had highs and lows. We celebrated the love story of Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, and also charged our glasses to the Women’s Hockey Team, two of whose members becoming the first openly-gay married couple to win Gold. We enjoyed Tom Daley’s Bronze tumble in the pool and we cried with him when his efforts for Gold met ultimate failure.
Britain loves its athletes, men, women, straight or gay. With eight openly-gay competitors in Team GB alone, one might imagine that the world – or Britain at least - is at peace with itself. And yet, peer below the surface and the old ugliness still lurks like a pike in still waters.
In Lancashire this weekend, we learned that Andre Grey, one of Burnley FC’s leading strikers, has asked for forgiveness for homophobic tweets he sent – not in 1912 but in 2012. That’s right, 2012, the year Tom Daley rose to stardom in London.
While there can be no doubt that Gray’s contrition is heartfelt, and that we must give him the benefit of the doubt when he says he is a changed man, these tweets nonetheless were made. As a Stonewall spokesperson said to the BBC:
"While these tweets are of course historic, unfortunately homophobic attitudes and language continue to be an issue in sport, whether that's on the pitch, in the terraces or on social media … It's extremely important that we work together to kick these attitudes out of sport, and create supportive and inclusive environments that enable everyone to feel accepted without exception."
There is still much work to be done in association football alone, the very sport which despite its best efforts, still continues to exhibit at times an almost Neanderthal approach. Let us not forget the treatment of Justin Fashanu, Britain’s first openly-gay professional footballer, whose suicide in 1998 was in many ways brought about by his sense of shame he had been made to feel.
“the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is holding an inquiry to examine the issue of homophobia specifically, and to take into account a broader range of sports beyond football. It is notable that there are currently no openly gay footballers in Scotland and England’s professional divisions and homophobic abuse remains commonplace at matches and online. It is also the case that abusive posts are sent to football players on social media once every 2.6 minutes.”
This is significant, and cannot be brushed away behind the gloss of Olympic success. The key issue we face is that we cannot simply pay lip-service to tolerance. If the culmination of any enquiry is but to put a spin on change, rather than delivering manifest change from top to bottom, we will not see real change on the pitch, on the terraces or in social media.
How can change happen?
But the challenge is to identify causes and this Enquiry will have a tough task. Is it poverty? Economic environment? Education? Is it political alienation or perhaps pockets of strident sectarianism? As we saw in the recent Brexit debate, there is no simplicity when it comes to understanding “the people”, especially when you ask them just one question – Australia take note.
The Olympics were indeed a showcase for British athletics and inclusion. But we must not disguise the fact that the country still has far to go. Clearly, the UK must continue to celebrate diversity because celebration delivers tolerance. But, as the government acknowledges, there is still significant work to be done.