Dot Wordsworth

Olympic family

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The people who occasionally drive in the empty Olympic lanes and are entitled to sit in the seats left empty at Olympic events are called the Olympic family. It seems to me unwise to have attached such a name to this already creepy notion. Even the UK Border Agency has special procedures for an ‘Olympic or Paralympic Games family member visitor’.

Since the world is addicted to gangster films, everyone knows that Mafia gangs call themselves ‘the family’. In The Luciano Story (1954), ‘The inside facts on the greatest criminal conspiracy in history and the mastermind behind it – Lucky Luciano’, Sid Feder and Joachim Joesten explained that ‘to Mafiosi, it was never the club or our mob or anything but the family.’

In 1812, in his New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, written, it is said, in prison at Newcastle on the way to transportation, James Hardy Vaux explained family as ‘thieves, sharpers and all others who get their living upon the cross’. And upon the cross was anything done irregularly, as opposed to on the square.

Of course, family has also been used in the sense we might think its first acceptation: Mum and Dad and the kids. Yet that idea of the nuclear family (as Malinowski called it 1924) is not historically dominant. Etymologically, family derives from famulus, meaning ‘a servant’. Servants were members of the household or familia.

This cut both ways. In Britain for most of the past 500 years, servants enjoyed the protection of family membership. Contrariwise, they owed the same obedience to the head of the household as children did. We might like to think that slavery never formed part of British polity, yet the place of servants in family life resembled that in Saudi Arabia today, rather than that of an employee in a factory.

What is unfamiliar to us is a ‘family’ enjoying privileges in the state that non-family-members lack. That was the position of white people under apartheid. Instead of a sign ‘Blankes’, we, the ‘Nie Blankes’, see the emblem of Olympic rings. The danger is that British MPs, VIPs and police might like to continue the segregation after the Olympics end.