Jonathan Jones 

The Olympics are exposing Britain as a self-obsessed nation

Jonathan Jones: Plans for the opening ceremony are to be a mixture of celebration and gentle jibes about our nation. But aren't the Games about more than just us?
  
  

Patriotism becomes daft when you expect other countries to share your national pride. America nearly got away with it in the age of the moon landings, when children of my generation accepted it as fair enough for the stars and stripes to hang out there in space. But it has been a long time since even the land of Coke could teach the world to sing. Why should the entire world be expected to embrace the British self-love that appears to be at the heart of the Olympics opening ceremony? Are we offering ourselves as the new America, a land so marvellous it can export its self-image?

A billion people around the planet are expected to witness the £27m ceremony conceived by film director Danny Boyle to start the Games. In details announced today, it emerges that he will turn the stadium into a vast model of an ideal and somewhat mythic British countryside. Complete with landmarks like Glastonbury Tor and entitled Green and Pleasant, the spectacle will treat the world to a romantic vision of our national landscape. Real farmyard animals will be grazing; in total there will be 70 sheep, 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese and three sheepdogs. There will also be clouds with fake rain in case the night is clear. "If it doesn't rain, we have created our own," said Boyle at the announcement, pointing to four huge clouds hanging from wires over a model of the stadium.

Look, I am not a huge athletics fan. Sometimes I watch the Olympics on TV, sometimes I don't. Is it the done thing to obsess about one's own national identity quite so overtly in the opening ceremony? By the sound of it, though, Boyle's spectacle will be far from complacent: with references to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and a cast that includes NHS nurses, it does sound as though he is offering an alternative, radical style of patriotism, not to mention laughing at national traits and the soggy climate. But radical navel-gazing is navel-gazing nonetheless.

There seems to be a unfortunate blur between this summer's jubilee and the Olympics. It is a culmination of a boom in self-regard that has made modern Britain ever more inward-looking. Waving flags for the jubilee was logical: the Queen is nothing if not British. But the Olympics? Surely, the Games are international.

The British Museum in London currently has a modest display of 12 objects recalling the ancient Greek Olympics. The highlight – which no one who visits London this summer should miss – is the Motya Charioteer, one of the masterpieces of ancient Greek art. Contemplating this sensuous statue of an athlete in a clinging robe, I could not help wishing the British Museum would put on a full-scale show about the history of the Olympics to celebrate us hosting the world's greatest sporting event. Instead, its big exhibition for the Olympic summer, in the same flag-waving mood as Boyle's sceptred-isle landscape, will be about Shakespeare. I am looking forward to it. But then I am British.

Is Britain playing host to the world this summer – or to itself? Why on Earth is the romantic Little England of Boyle's opener the appropriate way to begin a festival celebrating the human planet?

There's something very 1930s about all this. When we remember the Depression, we see the vicious hyper-nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini as nightmares never to be repeated – yet democratic countries too became inward-looking and self-obsessed in that age of austerity. British artists harped on about the landscape. Novelists feasted on British eccentricity. Now, in this new age of austerity, imaginations are once more preoccupied with homegrown qualities and known landscapes. Isn't the Olympics meant to be bigger and more generous than that?