Five things the Games have showed us so far
It's the greatest show on Earth, featuring GB gold fever, ‘cheats’ who prosper, drug-free drug panics and parochialism v perfection.
1) That winning is back in fashion! (Though not always for the right reasons…)
Before the Games began, much of the talk was of London 2012 as the ‘inclusive Olympics’. Not only would ‘the taking part’ be the important thing for competitors, but everybody in Britain could apparently take part, an all-must-have-prizes approach symbolised by the Olympic torch relay. Meanwhile, Olympics-bashing cynics were having a field day.
Since Team GB started racking up the medals, however, things have changed. The UK media and authorities have suddenly rediscovered the joy and importance of winning, gold fever has gripped the BBC - the state broadcaster acting as the Voice of the Nation for the duration of the Games - and the Olympic motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (‘Swifter, Higher, Stronger’) has shoved the other one about ‘taking part’ off the podium. Meanwhile, contrary to the dominant educational ethos of recent decades, there is talk of how competitive sports in state schools might not be such a bad thing after all.
It appears that the British cultural elite’s distaste for ‘elitism’ in sport has been at least partly a response to the fact that ‘we’ usually lose – rather as the EU has long embraced the green dogma of ‘sustainable development’ as a way of legitimising its own sluggish economic performance. Now that the Brits are winning gold, all that has been temporarily put aside.
As suggested on spiked on the eve of London 2012, when the cult of inclusivity was at its peak, ‘What remains great about the Olympics, however, is that once the sport begins it sweeps all of that cultural crap away. The essence of top-level sport remains about winning, losing, breaking records and being the best, not equality or fairness. You do not have to be one of those ridiculous social Darwinists who mix up sport and society to understand that the spectacle of human struggle is inspiring, not belittling, to the rest of us. (See The Games are the thing, by Mick Hume.) So it is good to see the true ‘Olympic spirit’ being joyously celebrated again, if only for a few days.
Even now, however, the ‘cultural crap’ is never far from the surface. Thus, the authorities want to turn the outstanding achievements of UK competitors into another instrument of their petty, miserabilist agenda. They declare that the triumphs we have all watched must be used to ‘inspire a generation’ – to, err, follow the government’s ‘healthy living’ guidelines and combat child obesity. Fortunately, millions of people – including us of a slighter older ‘generation’ – will ignore all that instrumentalism and simply be inspired by the Olympics for its own sake, because the Games can take us out of our everyday lives for a moment, or even a couple of weeks.
2) That cheating in sport is not as black-and-white as we might have thought
Amid all the understandable euphoria surrounding the Team GB’s ‘gold rush’ over recent days, one remarkable story received relatively little coverage. The cyclists led by Sir Chris Hoy won gold in the team sprint last Friday, but one of the earlier heats had to be restarted because one team member, Philip Hindes, crashed on the first bend. Immediately afterwards, Hindes appeared to tell a BBC interviewer that he had actually fallen off his bike deliberately because he started badly and wanted a second chance: ‘I just did it to get the restart. My first wasn’t the greatest so I thought to get the restart.’ When asked if he had been ‘pulling a fast one’, Hindes replied: ‘Yes, I was trying to get the fast time and get everything perfect.’
Hoy’s face as his teammate made this apparent confession was a picture of nervous consternation. Seemingly unperturbed, Hindes then elaborated on the point to a wider media audience, apparently implicating his teammates in the caper: ‘We were saying if we have a bad start we need to crash to get a restart. I just crashed, I did it on purpose to get a restart, just to have the fastest ride. I did it. So it was all planned, really.’
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Surprise, surprise, Hindes later denied crashing deliberately, while British Cycling suggested his comments had been ‘lost in translation’ – he has lived most of his life in Germany, only learning to speak English after moving to Manchester to train for Team GB, and he speaks with an accent out of ’Allo, ’Allo. Make of that what you will, the meaning of those remarks seemed clear enough at the time to all who heard them. Yet any concerns about such minor matters as infringing the rules to gain an advantage were soon swamped in the media celebrations of Sir Chris having won his fifth Olympic gold medal.
A revealing episode. After all, in these uncertain times, the authorities in Britain and elsewhere have often seemed at pains to emphasise that cheating in sport is one of the few remaining areas where a clear line can be drawn between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil. Hence the six-month jail sentence handed to a young Pakistani cricketer convicted of ‘spot-fixing’, effectively for deliberately bowling one no-ball that would have little or no effect on the outcome of the match in question, and the ton-of-bricks dumped on the Chinese badminton players thrown out of London 2012 for trying to lose a qualifying match in order to obtain an easier draw.
Yet now it seems that perhaps cheating in sport is not always so black-and-white after all. Partly this is a bad case of political-cultural double standards. They (especially the Chinese) cheat, while We just ‘pull’ a cheeky ‘fast one’; They ‘throw qualifying matches’, while We simply ‘ease through qualifying’ (that is, don’t try to win the heats).
However, it also demonstrates that cheating in sport can be a genuinely grey area. Top sporting competition, especially at the Olympics, has always been about winning, and serious competitors have always been willing to cut corners and push the ‘ethical’ envelope in order to get an edge on the opposition. Let’s recognise that fact, cut the moral posturing, and judge each case on its merits. Would you be prepared to ‘pull a fast one’ to help you win Olympic gold? For most competitors, the answer to that is surely as simple as falling off a bike.
3) That the track (and maybe the field) is where it’s really at
The early days of London 2012 were inevitably about fringe sports, from shooting to badminton, with much discussion focusing on the extraordinary feats of Michael Phelps in the swimming pool, and whether his ever-increasing medal toll (he has ended up with 22) made him the ‘greatest Olympian’. British coverage inevitably lent towards the performance of Team GB in those minor sports where National Lottery funding has helped to bring new levels of professionalism and success, notably cycling and rowing. (Boxing may well follow suit this week.)
There is no need to belittle the remarkable dedication and achievements of competitors in any of those events in order to observe that, once the track-and-field events began, the fringe sports were blown away as readily as that British gold-medal shooter dispatched his clay pigeons.
The classic Olympic races and contests remain the beating heart of the Games. They are at once the simplest Olympic events and the most compelling, displaying ordinary human activities we can all relate to – running, jumping, throwing – performed at an extraordinary level. That is why the golds won for Team GB by the heptathlete Jessica Ennis, the long-jumper Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah in the 10,000 metres outweighed all the rest. Champions such as a Phelps or a Ben Ainslie should be hailed as the greatest-ever Olympic swimmer or yachtsman. But the contest to be the greatest Olympian is an historic race run on the athletics track.
4) That the obsession with drugs in sport is doing more damage than actual drugs to the Olympic spirit
So far, London 2012 has been without the customary scandal over a winner testing positive for drugs – as I say, so far. It has not, however, been without a major drug panic. The obsession with drugs in sport risks casting a shadow over the Games and damaging public perceptions of the Olympic spirit without any help from doped-up athletes.
The worst case came last week when the 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen won two golds, breaking the world record in the 400 metres individual medley and taking five seconds off her personal best. No sooner had the teenager touched the pool wall as Olympic champion than Clare Balding of the BBC declared ‘questions’ would be asked about how she had managed such a performance. The American head of the World Swimming Coaches’ Association was quick to do just that, clearly implying that Ye’s ‘unbelievable’ success must be down to doping. Her subsequent intensive drug tests were all clear.
These outbursts of anti-drug paranoia risk tarnishing the extraordinary performances that Olympic dreams are made on. There were perfectly rational explanations for Ye’s record-breaking race. As the Australian former swimming gold medallist Ian Thorpe (who himself smashed records and won a world championship aged 15) pointed out on the BBC, it is precisely young swimmers who can make these leaps forward as they develop into champions. It is also the case that the cockpit of an Olympic final often brings out the best in competitors. Rutherford reportedly ‘came from nowhere’ to win the long jump for Team GB, yet nobody questioned how, and rightly so.
Those who combine talent with the hard work required to be an Olympic champion should be considered not just innocent, but brilliant, until proven guilty – and even then, ‘questions should be asked’ about the real role of drugs in sport (questions to which spiked will return if a scandal does blow up).
5) That ultimately parochialism cannot beat the best
Unsurprisingly, at times the near-hysteria about Team GB’s burst of success has seemed to swamp any consideration of the remarkable achievements of other athletes. The BBC has become obsessed with the medal table and Team GB’s currently elevated position in it, often sounding like scrap-metal dealers for whom the sheer weight of the gold or silver is worth more than the true sporting quality of the event in which the medals were won.
This became most glaring on Friday evening, the first night of the athletic events. All media eyes were on the victory of the British cyclist Victoria Pendleton, who powered round the final bend in the velodrome to win the Keirin, an eccentric (that is, mad-looking) specialist event where cyclists sprint to the finish after following a moped around the track for several laps. You would have had to search the BBC coverage high and low to discover that on the same evening, the majestic Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia had flown around the last lap of the running track to destroy a world-class field and retain her 10,000-metres title, apparently without breaking a sweat. In the process, she established herself as the female equivalent of her compatriot, Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest Olympians of all time - though not apparently in the view of the one-eyed British media.
Of course, everybody has enjoyed joining in to cheer the home team. Yet there is something slightly desperate about the outbreak of official gold fever around Team GB. It smacks less of the old-fashioned nationalist assumption of supremacy by a great power than the parochialism of a small nation surprised by its own success, overplaying its response in a way that looks less like arrogance than insecurity, a fear that it might all be snatched away as quickly as it arrived.
But by the end of the weekend, even the BBC had to take off its red, white and blue glasses to view one of the wonders of the Olympic world. On Sunday evening they were revelling in the victory of Ben Ainslie over a handful of posh yachtsman, and of course Andy Murray’s demolition of Roger Federer in the final of a tennis tournament played out among the same elite professionals who contested the Wimbledon championships on the same court a few weeks ago. But when the men’s 100-metres final took centre stage, all had to accept a distant second place. Usain Bolt’s display of power in retaining his title, in a race that featured the four fastest men of all time and where seven runners went under 10 seconds (the eighth was injured), was the highlight of the Games so far. Even the BBC had to give it top billing in the evening news.
Once again, the Olympics confirmed that sporting excellence on the track can ‘sweep all of the cultural crap away’ – at least for 9.63 seconds.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)