Columns

Race and the Olympics Opening Ceremony

Diane Abbott

Sunday, August 05, 2012    

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PEOPLE are still talking about the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. It was a wonderful spectacle. But one of the most striking things about it was that it marked important progress in the evolution of Britain as a genuinely multicultural society where people of all races live side by side on the basis of mutual respect.

The ceremony was meant to be a panorama of British history, culture and contribution to the world. So it was important that one of the scenes featured the HM Windrush, the ship that brought the earliest post-war West Indian immigrants to Britain. There was also a group of performers representing those immigrants, as they would have dressed coming off the boat. For those of us who are the sons and daughters of that generation, it was a very moving moment.

But it was also noticeable that, in all the scenes of British history that the ceremony depicted (however far back), there were performers of colour. This was actually historically accurate, as there have been people of colour in Britain since Elizabethan times. But in most British historical drama everyone is portrayed as Anglo-Saxon. So it was important that the Opening Ceremony chose to remind the millions of people watching that Britain has always been a multicultural society.

There was a big sequence in the ceremony devoted to popular music and culture. This revolved around a young couple falling in love. The girl's family were mixed race — a black father and a white mother. And the couple themselves were made up of a young black man and the mixed-race girl. This was noteworthy.

At no other point in Britain's history would an important ceremony like this revolve around a mixed-race family and a non-white young couple. And there is no other country in Europe that would have such a couple as symbolising youth in general.

The high profile given to this young couple shows how far Britain has come in its attitude to race. No doubt the fact that the American president is himself mixed-race has also affected attitudes.

One of the final sections of the ceremony was bringing the Olympic Flag into the stadium. One of the flag-bearers was the very ill but still hugely loved boxing immortal Mohammed Ali. But another was Shami Chakrabati a young woman of Indian origin who heads Britain's leading human rights organisation.

Another flag-bearer was Jamaican-born Doreen Lawrence, who campaigned over many years for justice for her son Stephen Lawrence who was murdered by white racists.

Overall the commitment to race equality ran through the ceremony like a golden thread. I have never seen a national event like it. The producer of the ceremony, Danny Boyle, has been lavishly praised in the British press. But it is no coincidence that his right-hand woman in putting the ceremony together was a gifted theatre director of Jamaican origin, Paulette Randall.

Surprisingly, there was very little backlash to the ceremony. A Conservative MP, who described it as "leftie multicultural crap", was slapped down by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. Progressive newspapers like The Guardian and the Tory press like The Telegraph united in praising it.

Racism has not disappeared in Britain. But the extraordinary nature of the Opening Ceremony shows that we have come a long way.

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