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Olympic bites
Quick comments on the good, bad and ugly of the London 2012 Games from spiked writers.
Friday 17 August 2012
Is Michael Gove undermining the Olympic legacy?
Rob Lyons

One debate that has raged this week after the London 2012 closing ceremony has been the fate of the UK’s school playing fields. Education secretary Michael Gove has been accused of giving the green light to property developers snaffling the very land on which our future Olympians will be forged.

Except, it’s all a lot more complicated than that. There was certainly a huge sell-off of playing-fields in the past. But the flood has now reduced to a relative trickle and such sales are not necessarily to the detriment of sport in schools. In reply to a question on the topic, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) noted in 2008: ‘Since 1997, 192 playing fields have been sold out of a total of over 20,000 schools (this is compared to an estimated 10,000 between 1979 and 1997). Ninety-one belonged to schools that were closing; 83 of those that remained open used the sale to improve their sports facilities and the remaining 18 improved their educational facilities.’ Beyond schools themselves, Sport England reported in 2010 that ‘1,181 out of 1,239 (95.3 per cent) of concluded planning applications affecting playing fields in 2008/09 resulted in improved or safeguarded sports provision’.

The great playing-field sell-off in the past has certainly not done the UK’s Olympic ambitions that much harm, with a record haul of 29 gold medals in 2012. (Let’s forget about 1908, when the Olympics was still two men and a polo pony.) Moreover, replacing a great big patch of hard-to-maintain grass with a sports hall, for example, may be a better choice to allow schools to offer a wider range of sports more frequently. Few would argue with the idea that sport in schools is a good thing, but there may be merit in allowing schools more freedom to work out what’s the best way of delivering it.

Friday 10 August 2012
At the Olympics, it’s the gold standard that counts
Patrick Hayes

Team GB is doing well - 25 Olympic golds means that Britain is pretty safe in third place. There is, for once, no need to rationalise our performance. Yet, in some quarters, there’s an active desire to cut the data in ways to show that Britain remains a nation of sporting losers.

Jared Diamond, for example, has been busy analysing the losers of all of the Olympics events so far for the Wall Street Journal, awarding ‘medals’ for those who come in last place, and second and third to last. In doing so, he’s found Team GB has topped the ‘loser rankings’.

Not to be outdone, the Guardian has been working with numerous statisticians to produce an ‘alternative medals table’, looking at performance by population size, GDP and number of entrants. Surprise, surprise, Team GB topples down the rankings there too – ranking 37th if GDP is taken into account, 13th considering population size, and 12th considering team size.

China and the US fare even worse if population is taken into account. Indeed it has often been argued that Team GB is at a great disadvantage against these two more populous nations as the more people there are, the more likely it is that there will be better athletes out there to be found.

Such arguments tend to be overly deterministic - and often falsifiable. India, for example, hasn’t gained a single gold so far, despite being the second-most populated country on Earth. Yet Jamaica has three golds, even though it has a population about 400 times smaller. Australia has an almost identical profile compared to four years ago, but its performance this time is dire by comparison. Other things are evidently at play that data alone can’t explain.

Playing with the stats can be fun, but it’s daft when it’s used to suggest certain countries are at an unfair advantage, and that results should be weighted accordingly. The Olympic spirit can’t be reduced to demographics, or economic prosperity. Ultimately only one thing should count for athletes at the Olympics – whether you are the best. The Olympics is rightly run according to this gold standard.

Friday 10 August 2012
What’s wrong with the Beeb cheering for Team GB?
Tom Bailey

Mark Thompson, director general of the BBC, has reportedly claimed that the coverage of the Olympics by the British Broadcasting Corporation has focused a bit too much on, err, British competitors. In a similar fashion to miserable Morrissey, the BBC bigwig seems to think all this flag waving is a bit too worryingly nationalistic. Perhaps a ‘Team EU’ would be more acceptable to him?

It started when Catherine Mayer, Time magazine’s Europe editor, wrote an open letter to the BBC denouncing reporters for openly cheering Team GB, particularly when Mo Farah won the 10,000m and BBC ‘pundits erupted in joy’. The sporting patriotism of lager-fuelled football fans seems to have infected the respectable BBC, and it looks like it has made some a bit uncomfortable.

The BBC has a reputation for impartiality, and supposedly supporting Team GB is at odds with this. But does anyone really want stiff-lipped 1950s style presenters covering the Olympics? ‘According to the Olympic judges, Mr Mohamed Farah of Great Britain has crossed the line first resulting in the securing of a first-place gold medal. That is all.’

In an international sporting event, media outlets openly cheering on their home team is hardly a meaningful breach of impartiality – it is not a war with two, or more, possible sides or narratives to cover, it is a simple competition. We hardly need a ‘competing narrative’ of the other nations to show all angles of the 10,000m, boxing, or whatever sport is being played. Of course, there will be exceptional performances that demand everyone’s attention - like David Rudisha’s brilliant 800m world record last night - but with so much going, and so much British success, what’s wrong with cheering on Team GB?

Thursday 9 August 2012
Usain Bolt has won the race against history (so far…)
Mick Hume

Tonight, Usain Bolt aims to become the first man ever successfully to defend both the 100 and 200 metres Olympic titles. Whatever happens in the 200 metres final, however, Bolt’s awe-inspiring victory in the 100 metres – in 9.63 seconds, an Olympic record only bettered by his own world record of 9.58 – has secured his place, not only as the fastest man on Earth today, but as the fastest man in history.

Bolt is the embodiment of more than a century of progress in the art and science of sprinting. A fascinating new American video uses graphics to put his latest triumph in some historical perspective. It shows just how far behind Bolt every men’s 100-metre gold medallist since the modern games began in 1896 would have finished. That first winner, Thomas Burke, won the 100 metres in Athens in 12 seconds, which would leave him with 20 metres still to run as Bolt crosses the finish line. Since then, the graphic shows a steady – though by no means unbroken – line of improving times, punctuated by notable breakthroughs, from Jesse Owens’ 10.3 seconds in Berlin in 1936 to Jim Hines becoming the first man to break the 10-second barrier in the Olympics, running 9.95 in Mexico in 1968 (still the greatest Games of all in my book, though maybe that is just showing my age), before ending in Bolt’s electrifying triumphs in Beijing 2008 – 9.69 seconds – and now London 2012 in that 9.63.

Vast improvements in diet, training, running tracks and shoes have brought us to the age of Usain Bolt. How much faster can a man go? The fact that the four fastest men of all time ran in the London final suggests we are far from reaching the peak of human powers. Indeed, that new video gives a glimpse of the future, noting that the American record for 15- to 16-year-old boys today – 10.27 seconds – would have won a bronze medal as recently as 1980 (albeit that was the Moscow Olympics, boycotted by the USA, when the gold medal went to Britain’s Alan Wells in 10.25 seconds, incidentally the last white man to win). Even Bolt’s historic records will not be forever.

A footnote: the video graphic notes that Carl Lewis, ‘gold medallist in Seoul in 1988’, who recorded 9.92 seconds, would have finished all of three metres behind Bolt in 2012. But Lewis of course did not win the 100 metres in 1988. He was destroyed on the track by Ben Johnson, who bulled over the line in a then-world record 9.79. Lewis was awarded the gold after Johnson failed a drugs test to become the greatest Olympic villain of all time. Yet Johnson – whose winning time in that final was not beaten by any gold medallist until Bolt – surely deserves his place in the history race. No drug has ever been proven to make a man run like he did that day.

In any case, he was hardly the first – or last – Olympic sprinter to look for an edge in the greatest race on Earth. No fewer than five of those 1988 finalists would eventually be caught up in drug scandals, including Britain’s Linford Christie (finished third, promoted to second, later won gold in Barcelona in 1992 but tested positive in both 1988 and 1999), and the squeaky clean Lewis himself, who won gold in Los Angeles in 1984 but failed a drug test in the run-up to Seoul – a result reversed, and covered up, by the US athletic authorities.

Surveying the remarkable acceleration of the men’s 100 metres through history, let us rejoice in the reign of Usain – and bring back Ben.

Thursday 9 August 2012
A surprise gold medal in drinking tolerance
Tom Bailey

There have been many mad attempts to regulate athletes’ behaviour by Olympic officials, in order to ensure Olympians set positive examples as role models.

An American judo competitor was sent home for testing positive for the definitely-not-performance-enhancing drug cannabis. Serena Williams was condemned in the US press for performing a brief dance made famous by the street gangs of her hometown, Compton. A Greek athlete was barred from competing after she posted a pretty confusing joke about African immigrants on Twitter, and a Swiss footballer was sent home for tweeting some rather unsavoury comments about South Koreans. There have also been many concerns raised about horny athletes having unsafe sex.

Refreshingly, however, the one place where the moral police and media in general has shown a startling amount of tolerance is concerning the drinking habits of Olympians. News stories abound about the exploits of successful Olympians celebrating by getting completely pissed. Team GB’s gold medal-winning cyclist Bradley Wiggins (obviously) decided to celebrate his victory by exceeding his prescribed daily alcohol unit intake – to surprisingly no visible condemnation from the moral police, be it the media branch, Olympic department, or the Bureau of Official Public Health.

The latest Olympian drink-fuelled exploits comes from German discus-thrower Robert Harting who, after securing himself a gold medal, got so drunk that he fell asleep on a train and had his Olympic Village accreditation stolen. Again, to scant criticism.

What a stark contrast to the norm. Usually, anyone in the public eye – as well as the rest of us -  is chastised for boozing, and for being a negative role model. Fat chance that any positive aspects of the ‘demon drink’ will continue to be celebrated when the Olympic hangover sets in. But here’s hoping anyway.

Next Page >>


18 June 2018
It isn’t Christopher Chope who’s mad – it’s his haters
7 June 2018
The false alarm over ‘fake news’

21 June 2013:
Man of Steel, leaden film

28 June 2013:
Dispatches’ dirty little secret