Throughout our holiday, reports from Rio rippled in — last thing at night, first thing in the morning — a regular golden swoosh of heartwarming news. We are only an averagely sporty family, but these Olympics made us all happier. Across the media, there’s been a mild controversy about whether the remarkable achievements of Team GB say anything bigger about Britain — ‘We always punch above our weight’ — or very little; ‘Sport is sport and only sport, and that’s why we like it.’ But of course there are wider lessons. First, there was real, big long-term investment provided by the National Lottery and the foresight of Sir John Major. Second, the unsentimental and even ‘unfair’ way this money was channelled by Sport UK. Then, as every gold winner has pointed out in post-event interviews, a huge amount of tight, disciplined teamwork engaged everyone from parents to sports scientists, groundsmen and cleaners. Finally, of course, came the talent and graft of the athletes. As we wrestle with our post-Brexit destiny, that seems a near-perfect national ideal. Imagine a Britain which had seriously invested for the long term, focusing only on industries and technologies where we were likely to be world-class; and where ‘company’ was used in the old sense of being a tight, committed team of friends and allies working together for a goal many years in the future. It would be a Britain shorn of short-term political lurches in funding and direction, whose corporate leaders had a lively sense of how much they owed to their teams and didn’t treat themselves as Medici princelings. It would be a Britain which didn’t struggle doggedly with the things we don’t do very well, but which focused on we’re good at. Rio 2016 has been a massive national success. To treat it as a happy summer glow would be a woeful waste of inspiration. (Though apparently we are investing less now in community sport: this may make the glow rather less golden in 15 or 20 years’ time.)
I had my annual fortnight away partly in Croatia. The great walled city of Dubrovnik has become a jostling human pâté composed of tens of thousands of decanted cruise-liner passengers and just as many Game of Thrones fans, trying to spot where various deeds of devilment and libidinous misbehaviour were filmed. The sweaty, squelching and wobbling press of damp T-shirts and vicious selfie sticks filled every street and alleyway. It was a cultural mosh pit. Going on cruises has, I’m told, become the biggest growth area in leisure and tourism. But are the cruise companies, who make their living by dropping hundreds of thousands of passengers at exotic locations, properly treating the islands and cities they rely on? From the Caribbean to Croatia, their clients pour off city-sized vessels, file into the squares and churches of real cities, and then promptly return aboard for their next meal and prepaid drink. They don’t seem to leave much behind in the way of cash. To me, it doesn’t seem fair.
That said, Croatia seemed remarkably safe, happy and prosperous — a reminder of how Greece used to be, with Italianate touches. Why remarkably? In Dubrovnik, only a tiny photographic exhibition tucked away in the basement of the Civic Palace bore witness to the 1991–92 bombardment of the city by the Yugoslav National Army during that spectacularly vicious war. It was less than a generation ago. The breakup of Yugoslavia is reckoned to have caused the deaths of around 140,000 people. In the jewel of the Adriatic, 88 civilians died and the shell damage was modest, but across the former country entire cities were razed. In Srebrenica, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred. For the first time since the defeat of the Nazis, concentration camps appeared in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were created. So much, so well-known. But what a restorative change a couple of decades of economic growth and prosperity makes! Not everywhere, of course: Bosnian Srebrenica remains unhealed. Croatia, however, enjoys a gloss of safe-seeming, almost smug good cheer. If such a turnaround can be achieved so quickly, it makes one wonder about other still-tormented parts of the world. In 30 years’ time, might even Raqqa be quiet, rebuilt and happy? Will tourists once again visit Roman Libya? Historians crouch beadily over disaster. That’s their job. But sometimes I think we could do with histories of healing, too.
I managed to see almost everything in Dubrovnik except Christ’s nappy, which is apparently held in the cathedral. We shouldn’t assume, however, that this great city is popular everywhere else in Croatia. One man I talked to was bitter about its history of buying off the Ottomans. ‘So they didn’t take away their men and boys, just ours.’ She was talking of course about the Janissaries, the Turkish troops composed of abducted Christian boys in the 14th and 15th centuries. The smaller the country, the longer the memory.
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