Let the real Games begin
Read spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on why track-and-field is all that matters at the Olympics.
At last, the Olympic Games have begun. I am afraid that I cannot get excited about whether Britain has won medals in the rowing, synchronised diving, or trick pony riding. For me, the Games are about track and field. All the rest might glister, but they are not true Olympic gold.
Being a great Olympic champion means more than being the best at something the rest of the world is not much interested in, like those who scour the small print in The Guinness Book of Records searching for some weird feat to accomplish. Nor can it mean something as banal as being a dab hand at darts – a “sport” now being considered for inclusion if London stages the 2012 Games. Olympic glory is about being the best of the best in a sport we can recognise as universally human – running, jumping, throwing – yet which appears to be taking place on another planet.
In Saturday’s first-round heats – yes, heats – five men eased through the 100 metres in under 10 seconds, looking like supermen on a weekend stroll. The winner of last night’s final will also have won the right to be called the Fastest Man on Earth. As opposed to one-of-the-men-with-the-fastest-boat out-of-a-small-class-of-posh-sailing-enthusiasts-on-earth. That is why, since I watched the “Black Power” sprint final in 1968, those few seconds between gun and tape have seemed more thrillingly significant than almost all the rest of the overblown Olympic circus.
Yet at the Athens Games, things appear to have been turned on their head. Much coverage so far has betrayed a world-weary cynicism about the athletics, alongside childish over-excitement about every other event. So the weekend’s sunny headlines about Britain’s “Gold Rush” in some minor competitions contrasted with the doomladen reports of a “dark shadow” over the sprint finals, in the wake of the drugs fiasco.
On Friday night, I could hardly believe my eyes when the brilliant Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia won the men’s 10,000 metres by running the last lap in 53 seconds, an awe-inspiring reminder of why these Games are worth waiting four years for. A few minutes later, I could hardly believe my ears when a BBC commentator suggested that the victory of a 38-year old Swedish bloke in a table tennis quarter-final could be “the emblematic event”. Whereas the defining image of past Games had come from the track, he insisted, “this match could be the iconic moment of these Olympic Games”.
An obscure ping-pong match as the high point of athletic achievement? No wonder one journalist could write that the Olympics had been great viewing for people, such as herself, “who don’t like sport” or even have a “loathing” of it. Some of us who love sport, however, loathe this sort of self-serving nonsense.
Watching the Olympics ought to be about admiring others as they pursue new standards of excellence. Instead, Olympic watching in Britain is in danger of becoming another celebration of a culture of low expectations. Millions who surely ought to have better things to do have apparently been sitting up late to watch Brits compete for bronze in events that almost nobody else cares about. After all, we reassure ourselves, the athletics is tarnished by drugs and corruption, isn’t it? Meanwhile the “pure” sports our plucky amateurs do well in supposedly uphold the true Olympic spirit.
Most of the contrasts drawn between the Ancient Greek games and today’s are fantasies; the Ancient Greeks too would do whatever they could get away with to gain a competitive edge. But there is one difference worth noting. The ancients ran as individuals, the glory of their victory was their own, and all could hail them as heroes. Oh, and there were no medals for the glory of coming second, never mind third. Perhaps we might think about reviving these traditions – even though, as my friend Alan Hudson of Oxford University points out, letting winners choose their own podium music in place of national anthems might involve “the risk of repetitive renditions of My Way”.
For the rest of the Games let us celebrate those striving for the superhuman, wherever they hail from. My local paper informs me that I should cheer especially loudly because a local boy helped Britain to win silver in the synchronised diving. But I am afraid that I am still dumbstruck by the Ethiopian Bekele. There is no drug that could allow the likes of me to run the first lap in 53 seconds, never mind the 25th. That is the stuff of which golden Olympic memories are made.
First published in The Times (London), 23 August 2004.
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