After three days at Glastonbury a few years ago, I decided that hygiene was a capitalist conspiracy and that tie-dye was a reasonable sartorial option. It can happen to anyone. By the same token, now is not the time for a sober analysis of what is going on with the London Olympics. Serotonin levels need a chance to flatten out again before anything very intelligent can be said. But I'm too curious about this whole 'Team GB' phenomenon not to hazard some theoretical guesses.
At present, Britain sits third in the Olympics medals table, behind the USA and China, with 16 gold medals, and politicians and pundits feverishly speculating about what this means for British politics and society. What, everyone wants to know, do all these medals say about Britain? What, precisely, are the British up to, when they find themselves third behind two huge global superpowers? And how about the ethnicity of our winners? What does that say about Britain?
The most obvious answer is "nothing at all". The great conjuring trick of the Olympics is to connect the behaviour of a few hundred fitness freaks with nationalist iconography and imagined community. The hosts are granted even greater freedom to conjure, with the opening ceremony and benign celebrities framing everything that comes after. Hence Danny Boyle's portrayal of the industrial revolution is somehow of a piece with the fact that Jessica Ennis is mixed-race, thanks to coincidences of Olympic time and space. It's been done thrillingly, although magnification of scale has always been one of the greatest political conjuring tricks.
But maybe there is more of a connection here. Maybe there is something which connects 'Britain' and 'Team GB', beyond the sheer numbing force of Union Jack repetition. What can we plausibly say about the sociology here? How to interpret this sporting oddity?
Interpreting Team GB requires us to go back to the mid-1990s, when Britain was led by the first Prime Minister to care deeply about sport, John Major. Major introduced the National Lottery in 1994, which later funded various elite athletics programmes. Then in 1996 Britain suffered the apparent ignominy of winning just a single gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics, leading to drastic improvement measures focused on elite performance. From that low-point, everything began to change, such that by 2008, Team GB came fourth in the medals table, hitting the target set for it by UK Sport's 'UK Performance System'.
As with any management target, the only thing to do after it has been hit is to raise it, so the target for 2012 was to win even more medals. In November last year, the Chief Executive of UK Sport said:
We will be top four in the medal table at the  Olympics and second at the Paralympics, and we'll win more medals across more sports. In 2011 we've had a more successful year than the year prior to Beijing. I can be confident because of where we are and what the current performances indicate.
Iain Hacking's book, The Taming of Chance, is a history of statistics, but the title might equally refer to British elite sports management.
Of course one can - and should - ignore the infrastructure of elite sports management when enjoying characters such as Bradley Wiggins and Mo Farah. It is far better to believe that the metaphysical hand of 'Britain' lies behind the heroism of both, and not the physical hand of money, 'governance' and 'leadership'. It's only after a play is over that the audience should start to reflect on the quality of the lighting, acting and set design. But, in the calm before the next storm of British medals, let's at least admit that it makes more sense to attribute agency to, well, governing agencies, than it does to some ghostly apparition known as 'Britain'. And before we all slap ourselves too hard on the back for the fact that GB is now beating China and USA for 'per capita medals', lets also remind ourselves that if we divide our medal haul by our rate of GDP growth, we do better still (around infinity, by my calculations...). National sports policy was, after all, invented by the Soviet Union in an effort to further distract from the growing chasm separating communist from capitalist wealth creation. Under George Osborne's watchful eye, Team GB inherits that mantle.
Three questions follow from this analysis, which may point towards something sociologically significant. Firstly, if we can turn around elite sports in the space of 15 years using business management techniques, why can't we manage our businesses better? Time and again, Britain confronts a curiosity: we have a far better record in applying private sector management techniques beyond the business world, than we do in applying them within the business world.
This has been seen principally in the public sector. In its enthusiasm for British innovations such as the world wide web, Danny Boyle's ceremony ommitted some of the most significant of the past thirty years: privatisation, new public management and PFI. We are quite brilliant when it comes to making non-businesses more business-like. We are far less good when it comes to making actual businessess succeed (which has quite a bit to do with out old friends in the City of London). Britain has performed magnificently at injecting a business mentality into the highest echelons of cycling, athletics and, in non-Olympian fields, cricket. This may indeed tell us something about who 'we' are.
Secondly, why, therefore, has public sector reform not succeeded to a greater extent? If we can overhaul athletics in 15 years (and cricket in under a decade), to make it truly world class, why not the same for public services? The answer probably lies in the way that sport already possesses certain character traits of the business world. In particular, sport is a form of organisation in which it is perfectly legitimate to dump the losers, and focus only on likely winners. As any strategy consultant knows, the art of competitiveness is to invest heavily in areas where one has some advantage and is likely to win. Supporting winners is partly about abandoning losers, or at least governing them in ways that are most supportive of future winners. In this respect, sport resembles the business world in important ways that the public sector does not. Applying private sector management techniques to sport is therefore a more natural fit than applying them to the NHS.
Thirdly, why has England failed to achieve similar things in the sport it cares most about, namely football. When Germany fielded a terrible team at Euro 2000, the sporting authorities responded just as Britain's did after Atlanta 1996, revamping the infrastructure from top to bottom, in the interests of elite success, producing the magnificent team of 2010 and 2012. Why can't England do this? The answer perhaps lies in the fact that English football is already too internal to capitalism. What we specialise in, as a nation, is taking private sector management techniques, and exporting them into areas which are amenable to a logic of competitiveness, but which are largely uncomodified. While individual Premiership football teams might be improved by strength of managerial character, no managerial innovation can transform the entire culture of John Terry, Adidas, Ashley Cole and Sky Sports. This world already has its own powerful norms of performance evaluation, dominated by money, power and ego, to an extent that no 'Leadership Performance System' can make any inroads into. Unlike the comparatively innocent worlds of cycling or cricket, it is pre-commodified.
So, yes, Team GB tells us something about who we are. We are not good at business, and we may not actually be very good at sport. But we have some extraordinary gift for applying management philosophy, to new fields, so long as those fields a) treat inequality as a good thing (i.e. they are competitive) and b) do not reduce that inequality purely to money. The Olympics fits very neatly into that space. And if you want another example of an institution being brilliantly reinvented through business management, and which also celebrates uncommodified inequality, consider the other great British zero-to-hero story of the past 15 years: the Royal Family.
Update: this interesting BBC article on Team GB funding and strategy confirms much of the above.