Bread and circuses, eh? A full house of 140,000 at Silverstone, Wimbledon packed for the men’s final, the entire nation taking advantage of the free-to-air concession to follow the twists and turns of an unprecedented cricket showdown at a sold-out Lord’s. Who, we asked ourselves, does this stuff better? And yet amid the unfolding delirium of Sunday’s sporting cavalcade there were moments when it was impossible not to pause the action and ask what it means, in the times through which we are living, to find a few hours’ relief by cheering a bunch of talented people hitting a ball or driving round in circles.
Whoever and wherever you were, it was a glorious day. There may have been nothing quite like having a seat at Lord’s as the astonishing climax to the World Cup final went through its various stages of escalating delirium. But the real place to be was in England’s back garden, with family and friends and a big screen and a bucket full of iced drinks. Then, as an average sort of day was transformed by golden late-afternoon sunlight, you could watch and marvel at it all, surfing on one wave of emotion after another.
The TV cameras captured the enthusiasm of all those crowds, from the grassy mounds to the royal box. But that’s where Stormzy, Jeff Bezos, Sharron Davies, Daniel Craig, Seb Coe, Clare Foy, John Bercow and those nice Cambridges and Cumberbatches got it wrong. It was good to see them all showing up at a major sporting event. But they’d have been better off in a T-shirt and shorts in the back garden, soaking everything up at once, gripped by the dizzying crescendo of a unique day.
It’s not necessary to claim that a record-breaking sixth victory at Silverstone makes Lewis Hamilton the greatest grand prix driver of all time or that the first Wimbledon men’s singles final to be decided by a fifth-set tie break was the greatest tennis match in history or that by fighting each other to the very end England and New Zealand had produced the greatest cricket match ever played. Probably none of those things is true. But we can be pretty certain that there has never been an all-round day quite like this one, when events followed each other in a way that otherwise happens only during an Olympic Games, with its formal and interlinked structure.
The Olympics was the comparison that also came to mind while observing the joy of the crowds at all three places. Seven years ago this month Britain became the sporting centre of the world when London hosted the Summer Games. Immoderate expenditure and matching inventiveness allowed the country to show its best side, starting with an opening ceremony in which Danny Boyle brilliantly reacquainted us with our history, our diversity and our moral assets. For two weeks we were enraptured not just by the athletes’ achievements but by a comforting sense that we had recognised our better selves, despite the austerity measures newly imposed on British lives by the men occupying the best seats in the stadium.
All things pass, we told ourselves. The Camerons and Osbornes will fade into history but our real values and principles, ancient and modern, will endure. Look at Jess Ennis, a mixed race woman from Sheffield. Look at Bradley Wiggins, born in Ghent and now enthroned at Hampton Court Palace. Look at Mo Farah, a refugee from Mogadishu. The future is right there, enfolded in a union flag, and it wasn’t formed on the playing fields of Eton. That’s what we said as the cheers faded on the last of those wonderful summer evenings, before the daily grind resumed.
One Olympic cycle later a truer picture of Britain’s essential nature emerged through the result of the EU referendum, and Sunday’s events took place against the backdrop of a nation more deeply divided than ever, readier to turn disagreement into hatred and anger into violence. In such an environment even the bliss of a first win for England in a Cricket World Cup final could not feel entirely unmixed.
No response to that triumph was more self-revealing in its stupidity, ignorance and opportunism than that of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who took to Twitter to proclaim that “we clearly don’t need Europe to win”. There are three answers to that. First, “we” don’t need Europe to win the Eton wall game, either. Second, the Ryder Cup. Third, he seemed not to have noticed that the squad deemed worthy of his accolade contains a host of players with immigrant backgrounds, including men born in Dublin, Christchurch, Bridgetown and Durban, and with skin shades and cultural affiliations reflecting what anyone can see on a walk through the ordinary streets of Britain. They don’t represent some utopian Rainbow Britain but they do represent the us that history has fashioned and which is under attack from those with a different agenda.
For the participants the glow of that magical day will never fade. The rest of us can also cherish the memories and the sense of pride – not just in the prizes won in our name but in the knowledge that the stage and the audience proved worthy of the occasion. Hamilton and the England XI were inevitably cheered to the echo and beyond but Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, a Serb and a Swiss, could not have wished for a finer setting for their efforts or a warmer embrace from the crowd. It took all sorts, not least New Zealand’s widely appreciated sportsmanship, to create that day of marvels, allowing us another glimpse of our better selves. By the time the next one arrives the need might be even greater.