A beginner’s guide to the Greatest Show on Earth

The Olympic Games in London will feature 29 different sports, from the familiar to the obscure. To appreciate the drama, you need to know what the hell is going on.

Rob Lyons

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Moaning about the budget overruns. Complaining that you can’t get a ticket. Sitting despairingly in traffic jams. Worrying about terrorism. Fuming at pointless, petty security. Railing against the corporate takeover of the Games. Despite appearances, and with the assurance that Herculean efforts in all these fields of endeavour will continue over the next couple of months in London, it turns out that none of these things is actually an Olympic sport. No, really.

I know this for a fact, now that I’ve read How to Watch the Olympics, by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton. However, beach volleyball is an Olympic sport. Modern pentathlon – a combination of fencing, horse riding, swimming, running and shooting – is an Olympic sport. Greco-Roman wrestling, archery, synchronised swimming, water polo and table tennis are Olympics sports, too.

In fact, there are 29 different sports in the summer games. Which means at some point between 27 July and 13 August, you are going to turn on the TV, watch a Turkish bloke who is five foot nothing lifting a stupidly large barbell about his head (weightlifting), watch two perfectly nice young ladies try to kick each other’s heads off (taekwondo), or see fit young men in Speedos apparently recreating the video for ‘It’s Raining Men’ (diving), and think: what the hell is going on?

The great thing about the Olympics is that, apart from in one or two sports that maybe shouldn’t be there (for example, football), this competition really matters to everyone taking part. I mean, really matters. They’ve devoted the past four years – in reality, a great big chunk of their childhoods and all their adult lives – to get to this moment. Someone’s going to win, while quite a lot of people are going to come away with absolutely nothing but heartache and crushing disappointment. Goldblatt and Acton have cleverly provided their readers with enough of the answers to let the casual viewer – who probably doesn’t have a clue why achieving ippon matters to judo fighters, for example – enjoy the essential drama of the moment.

It matters not one jot if you don’t think what you are watching is a ‘real’ sport (although defining a real sport is a pretty difficult business). After all, darts and snooker can be edge-of-the-seat stuff if you know what’s going on and they are just pub pastimes. All that matters is engaging with human emotions like hope, fear, elation and despair.

The book is divided into sections for each sport, with additional sections on the history of the Olympics, the opening ceremony, the medals ceremony and the closing ceremony. For fans of pub quizzes, it’s an absolute joy, a treasure trove of trivia.

Take the Olympic flame. That idea only appeared at the Amsterdam games of 1928. However, the idea of a torch relay from Greece was devised by one of the leading organisers of the Berlin Games in 1936, Carl Diem, appealing to the Nazi obsession with Ancient Greece. Which casts the super-inclusive torch relay going round the UK at the moment in a whole new light. (But that hasn’t stopped hundreds of thousands of people turning out to see the Olympic flame arrive in their locality, a heartwarming demonstration that there is genuine excitement about the Games amid all the curmudgeonly sniping.) The grand finale of the opening ceremony is the moment when the cauldron is lit from the flame carried by the final bearer. As Goldblatt and Acton point out, there have been many ways devised to stage this dramatic moment, but the paralympic archer firing an arrow into the cauldron in Barcelona in 1992 was pretty damn good, even if – like many elements of opening ceremonies – it was a bit of a con.

The Olympics are, of course, full of fascinating stories. For example, the release of doves was scrapped after the Seoul games in 1988 because some of the doves landed on the edge of the cauldron, only to be incinerated when it was lit. What most of the world saw of the fireworks in Beijing in 2008 was computer generated – the organisers were terrified that bad weather might spoil the show being presented on TV.

The first modern games was in 1896, but the practice of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals only started in the first London games – in 1908. Prior to that, winners were presented with silver medals and olive branches, and there was no prize for third. The medals for London 2012 are the biggest yet, weighing a hefty 400 grams. Regardless of outside appearances, they are all mostly silver, but the gold medal must have at least six grams of actual gold in it.

But back to the sport. I’ve often thought that the appearance of tennis as an Olympic sport in 1988 was a pretty lame attempt to get a high-profile sport involved with little obvious connection with the Games. In fact, tennis was one of the original sports in the modern Olympics, featuring from 1896 to 1924. What killed its inclusion was professionalism. When the players started getting paid, there were too few good amateurs to justify including the sport. Once the International Olympic Committee got over its distaste for allowing competitors to make a living, the tennis players came back. And with ranking points being awarded now for Olympic success, all the top players should be taking part in London 2012.

The striking thing as you flick through the book is just how many sports have massive fanbases in one part of the world, but are routinely ignored everywhere else. Badminton, a game British people usually reserve for gentle exercise at the local-authority sports centre, is huge in China. It can also be blindingly quick: shuttlecocks have been recorded travelling at over 260 kilometres per hour, faster than even record-breaking tennis serves. Wrestling is big in the former Soviet Union. The women’s handball world championship gets bigger TV audiences in Denmark than any sport bar the football World Cup. Who knew?

How to Watch the Olympics may be destined to sit next to the toilet, to be enjoyed one chapter at a time while one communes with nature, as it were. Upon absorbing its lessons, however, you’ll be able to impress your friends down the pub when the sailors compete in the Finn (a single-handed dinghy designed by, er, a Swede) or the Elliott 6m. These events are quite likely to be on TV screens in the UK because Great Britain is probably going to win quite a lot of medals in sailing. (Actually, best of luck with explaining the sailing. It looks a bit complicated, frankly.)

Most importantly, though, this book will enable you to enjoy the whole Olympics, instead of simply waiting around for days until Usain Bolt comes on. Empowered by my reading, I, for one, cannot wait to watch South Korea kick the rest of the world’s backsides in the archery. What do you mean – you didn’t know South Koreans are the kings and queens of archery? You probably need this book, then.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked

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