Tag Archive for London 2012

“British”, a poem about Team GB and national pride at London 2012

I wrote and performed this poem for the BBC World Service Weekend programme, and it was broadcast on the last Saturday of the Olympic Games.  I thought I would post the text here.

This is
What it means to be British –
To take part in a race,
Hoping to win –
But expecting a last-place finish.
Yes, this is British –
To make it all the way to a tie-break
And then brick it.
We are the world’s biggest optimists
Hidden inside the most hostile of cynics.
The glass in our crystal balls
Is overcast.

But maybe this has changed.
Maybe British now means –
British is

Bradley Wiggins!
Hoy, Rutherford and Farah –
Jones, Murray, Ennis, Adams!
Maybe British is beating anyone – everyone –
Et cetera!…
Maybe –
We should calm down.
With the exception of these two weeks,
It’s not every day that we’ll win a world crown.
But I hope that this next image will always be British –
We throw that house party that anyone can visit,
With guests from far and wide
Bringing any number of different dishes:
And when we’ve eaten, we stand awkwardly against the wall,
Until our guests tug us, smiling, into the middle of the floor.

The Independent on Sunday: The Olympics, cheating and the spirit of fair play

This article originally appeared in The Independent on Sunday, 5 August 2012.  The link is here: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/musa-okwonga-if-theyre-brits-we-call-it-tactics-if-not-its-cheating-8007570.html

Whenever competitors try to work around the rules of a sport, there is a thin line between being cute and being a cheat. Some athletes eye this line as carefully as they watch the edges of their own lanes: and others pole vault well clear of it. These Olympic Games have already seen plenty of participants both suspected of and criticised for morally dubious conduct. China’s Ye Shiwen, the 16-year old double gold medallist, has been found guilty until proven innocent of doping by the ever-reliable court of Western public opinion. That same court has been somewhat less quick to conclude that Katie Ledecky, the 15-year old winner of the 800m freestyle, has been generously assisted by chemical friends. Why Ledecky – a wholesome all-American prodigy with an apple-pie smile – has been subjected to less scrutiny than Shiwen is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, badminton players from China, Indonesia and South Koreahave been disqualified for trying to lose to their opponents, results which would have given them an easier draw in the following round. Great Britain’s joy at a cycling gold medal for its men’s sprint team was tempered by the revelation that Philip Hindes, who rode the team’s anchor lap, may have deliberately crashed in order to gain a restart for his team.

As is often the case, the responses to these events have been more revealing than the events themselves. Broadly speaking, the authorities have condemned their acts, while athletes and team coaches have been fairly sympathetic. China’s official delegation described them as “against the spirit of fair play”, as Alan Budikusuma, who had won an Olympic badminton gold for Indonesia, revealed to the BBC that he had been told by his coaches to lose matches to better his team’s chances. Elsewhere, British Cycling was quick to defend Hindes from any allegation of wrongdoing, suggesting his explanation for his crash – ” I did it on purpose to get a restart … So it was all planned, really” – was lost in translation, since Hindes, born in Germany, had only recently begun to learn English.

Hindes received qualified support from a surprising corner, in the form of the French coach Florian Rousseau. “There was no cheating,” said Rousseau. “However, I do think the rules need to be more precise … The fact that he [Hindes] did it on purpose is not very good for the image of cycling.”

Both cases seem at odds with the words of Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic Charter, which states: “Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport … in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” It’s fair to wonder, though, if De Coubertin’s vision as outlined in 1894 was impossibly idealistic. Many people will point slightly further back in time, to 1882 and the founding of the Corinthian Casuals football club, whose principles are seen as largely responsible for the modern idea of sportsmanship. Yet it’s important to note that the Casuals’ constitution, decreed the club should never take part in a competitive fixture. With respect, their vision of sport – as a wholly amateur pursuit – is possibly as far from the current incarnation of high-level athletics as could be imagined.

Rousseau, the French coach, instinctively knew this. Although he saw something ugly in Hindes’ alleged intent, he also understood the pressures brought to bear by professional sport. Perhaps, then, it is more accurate simply to accept that cunning, cuteness or cheating – whatever shade of subterfuge it happens to be – is merely part of human nature, and will emerge under the harshest conditions.

Indeed, our societies have long revered those who have been underhand in achieving their goals: Diego Maradona’s handball against England in the 1986 World Cup; more subtly, Michael Owen’s tumble for a penalty against Argentina in the 1998 World Cup. In events where the margins for error are ever slimmer, being virtuous can be a huge impediment to winning.

Professor Lewis Hyde makes this point well in Trickster Makes This World, which examines the role of the artful dodger throughout history. He notes that “where someone’s sense of honorable behaviour has left him unable to act, trickster will appear to suggest an amoral action, something right/wrong that will get life going again”. Like a crashed bike, or a thrown badminton match.

However, those who would throw morality to the wind in pursuit of sporting glory should pause before they do so. Whenever athletes compete in elite events, they are fighting for two things: the first is the topmost place on the podium; the second is a legacy. It’s easier to win the first than the second. Ultimately, a gold medal is no fun if you cannot be forever feted for receiving it: there is no person more oddly lonely in sport than the bitter winner. In baseball, for example, the Hall of Fame denies access to those whom it considers to have brought the sport into disrepute, no matter how spectacular their achievements on the field.

Maybe that is why we can forgive our idols for the odd moment of corner-cutting, as many of us can relate to it. And why we are especially harsh on those, such as steroid-takers, who have forged entire careers on doping. To ensure they are remembered fondly, it is essential that sporting winners retain their dignity: and, with that in mind, it seems that Pierre de Coubertin was on to something.

A poem for London 2012: “Heavyweight”

Since the Olympic Games have come to London, here’s “Heavyweight”, a poem I wrote, set to the music of DJ Sid Mercutio, about London taking on Muhammad Ali in his prime.  You can listen to the track by clicking here.

You can also read it below. Hope you like it, if so please share; and thanks for visiting this page.


Here’s a question.  Who’s the greatest

Fighter of all time?  The latest

Theory is that it’s that man

Who didn’t fight in Vietnam

Since blacks had been done no evil

By those he called yellow people:

That same man who, far from humble,

Fought that Rumble in that Jungle;

Who said he danced like butterfly,

Whose health has now been scuppered by

The harsh onset of that disease

That makes him shake like trees in breeze…

Some say Ali is the finest:

Some say his appeal is timeless –

But, if you ask my opinion

Then The Greatest is in England.

Who’s that, you might ask? Wait, listen:

This fighter treats opposition

With indifference, disdain.

Well, who’s this fighter? What’s his name?

You’ll ask again. I’ll say: Calm down.

This fighter’s no man. It’s a town.

A town? you say, somewhat intrigued.

Please. How is a town in the league

Of the great Muhammad Ali,

That man who defied his Army,

Who, filled with pride, blessed with special

Skills told black folk not to settle

For the third best, or the second.

What.s this town? What do you reckon?

Take a guess. If your assumption

Is that I refer to London

Then you’re right. This town’s a fighter:

It’s faced foes cunning as vipers,

It’s faced sly and swift invasion,

Embraced hasty immigration.

And it has retained its status

As The Greatest. See, this city’s

Fought them all: it’s fought the sniffy,

Snobbish, and obsessive souls

Each one of whom, nightly, patrols

The King’s Road in a Merc or Rolls –

The fruits of their financial goals:

It’s fought the rudeboys on that bus

Through Brixton, fought their every cuss,

It’s fought punks and Goths in Camden,

Skinheads chanting national anthem:

And the reason that it’s fought them

Is that London will support them

All. It will support the Muslim

And those who would wish to push him

Down: it will support the Jew,

The Christian; in short, all of you

But London will defend its sense

Of self at anyone’s expense.

Veteran of thousand summers

This town’s ground down all newcomers…

See the victories it’s scored

See all the hits that it’s absorbed:

It’s seen off the Blitz, the Romans,

Irish terrorists’ explosions:

And, more recently, it’s seen off

Bombers who blew their heads clean off:

Sure, they rattled it a little,

But to fell it like a skittle

Takes a little more than violence:

To intimidate this island’s

Capital takes something greater

Than those who might smite skyscrapers:

Takes more than that thick, unhealthy

Smog in slow flow over Chelsea:

Takes more than that endless cycle

Of commuters: snarling, spiteful,

Stuck on the M25

To tear apart London’s insides…

It’s a complex city, London,

With more layers than an onion,

Layers made of blacks, Jews, Turks,

White bankers high off City’s perks

Who snorted coke and swapped high fives;

Top football players and their wives;

Stars of the big screen with their chic

Apartments; here and there, a Greek,

A Russian, strolling through its parks,

Who with his fellow oligarchs

Has date-raped his state and escaped…

But this city still can’t be shaped

By those who’d see it gentrified,

Who’d love it if it gently died…

It’s a fearsome adversary

That, for years, has had to carry

All this weight: though millions

Have fought it, its resilience

Somehow remains. If that strength stems

From calm and cold blood of the River Thames

I just don’t know. I just know this:

That London will one day dismiss

Us as it has dismissed all those

Who’ve tried to dress it in their clothes.

That.s why, if you staged a fight

Between Muhammad Ali, right

At top of his game, in his prime,

And London, this home town of mine

I’d bet a few dimes he could blast it,

Outclass it;

But not outlast it.

Dear [Olympic Partner]: The opening ceremony, and The Daily Mail

As mentioned before, I was incensed by the Daily Mail article about the opening ceremony – analysed brilliantly by John Walker – but I thought that mere fury wasn’t enough.  So I wrote a standard form letter (below), which anyone can adapt and send to the communications teams of each of the Olympic sponsors, should they so wish.  I am slowly working through this list myself, and it’s taking a while to find out some of the contact details, but I thought that anyone else who wanted to make a complaint might like template with which to do so.  The list of the official partners for the London 2012 Olympics are at this link: not all of them advertise with the Daily Mail, but the more commercial pressure that is applied to the Daily Mail the better.


Dear [Olympic Partner],

I hope that all is well with you.  I am writing because I have very serious concerns about a recent article published online by the Daily Mail, which has caused widespread fury among the British public.  Since you may have a commercial relationship with them for the duration of these Games, I feel that the racially controversial content of this article may be a matter for your urgent review.

I, like many millions of others, greatly enjoyed the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.  I thought that, in the course of its celebration of the inclusivity that is British culture at its best, it managed perfectly to embody the three Olympic Values – friendship, respect and excellence – and the four Paralympic Values – equality, courage, determination and inspiration.  All in all, it was a ceremony of tremendous warmth, wit and compassion.

Shortly afterwards I read an article about this triumphant opening ceremony in the Daily Mail, which has been the source of almost unprecedented controversy.  In the course of the article – which has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website without any apology for the gross offence that it has caused – the author commented that “[the ceremony] was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.”  The article, whose content has been thoroughly reviewed at the journalist John Walker’s website, openly mocked the possibility that happy mixed-race families could exist in Britain.  Britain rightly prides itself on one of the most happily diverse societies in the world. The Daily Mail’s article is therefore wholly at odds with statistical data and, equally importantly, with national sentiment.  I also contend that this article is entirely opposed to the key Olympic Value of friendship, is entirely opposed to the key Paralympic Value of equality, and, therefore, is inconsistent with the values of your organisation as an official partner of these Games.

Though this article, as mentioned before, has now been deleted from the Daily Mail’s website, it has been shared among millions of readers on Twitter, and copies of it continue to be shared and distributed online.  The Daily Mail is experiencing very severe damage to its brand, and it is very possible that your brand will suffer damage by association.

As a deeply concerned member of the public, I thought that I would bring this issue to your attention, and I hope that you are able to address it at your earliest convenience.  Given its potential ramifications, I consider that it is a matter of the greatest importance.

With best wishes,

[Concerned member of the public]


No longer casual about Daily Mail racism

The Daily Mail has written an article of such flagrant racism that it has seen fit to edit itself.  A superb piece has already been written on their post by @botherer, but I am actually shaking with rage and so I thought it important that I capture some of my anger here.  The Daily Mail published an online piece by a man who scorned the very existence of happy mixed-race middle-class families.  Yes, it actually did this.

I understand that there will be many people who will roll their eyes at what they see as such stunts by the Daily Mail.  But I can’t be one of them today.  This article is uniquely revealing.  The Daily Mail has not attacked black men for acts of criminality.  It has attacked them for their happy marriages to women who happen to be white.

That is shameful, and, I think, very dangerous.  The Daily Mail consistently produces articles that give rise to what many would call leftie outrage.  But I’m not a leftie living life in some kind of mythical liberal utopia, who takes calculated offence at every suggestion of prejudice.  I am merely a black man entirely and authentically furious at an article whose main racial thrust I consider to be wholly unacceptable.

Right.  Blood cooling, but that had to be said, or rather written.  Thank you for reading this far.



A poem, “Living in Hackney”

Living in Hackney –
Is like Rome: it’s where all the roads lead –
In a towerblock standing high as a nosebleed
A young urban Virgil composes the poetry
With his pen diligent, of East Londinium –
Sketches the Town Hall’s pavilion majestic,
As, by its steps, move civilians eclectic;
Villains and detectives,
Evangelicals and sceptics,
Skinheads and immigrants, the spectrum
From the dole queue to the high-roll businessmen,
Whole continuum of citizens; Virgil
Watches as youths boom tunes from their chariots,
Soundtracks for black moods, tracksuited garrisons,
Sees young maidens with their babes in Victoria’s
Park where a stroll blows their woes off like sawdust –
Tastes with his nasal the Turkish cuisine, a
Dinner being finished that is fitting of a Caesar;
Difficult to see the –
Village’s marshes
Where there is a duel with a ball and two arches;
Gladiators, animated, wearing
Shields over their shins; Virgil returns to
The main street, where the roadworks spring eternal,
Street where the lights from the grocery burn all
Night, and Virgil notes in his journal:
“If the world’s a Coliseum, Hackney is Maximus:
Town where, even without fare, you can catch a bus,
Where the train line’s almost as high as a viaduct;
Can’t beat it for the quiet life or the riotous
Pubs or the breakfasts; none quite fry it up
Like Hackney! –
Unlike Rome, never conquered,
Never mastered, may you march ever onward –
Hackney: unlike Rome, never conquered –
Never mastered, may you march ever onward.”