I would argue that the Olympics is about the triumph of the competitive spirit, and I make no apologies for preferring individual excellence over such farces as Olympic football
As somebody who lives near Much Wenlock in Shropshire, home of the modern Olympics, I have been subjected to more than the normal amount of local enthusiasm for what is being billed by ministers as the Greatest Show on Earth. But who are the Olympics really for and what are they about? Are the Olympics really a show, in the style of the Roman Emperors who gave the crowds bread and circuses?
Certainly we can expect to see a fair amount of blood, bruises, cuts and injuries in the next few weeks – I was up last night watching a replay of gutsy cyclist Victoria Pendleton taking on her Australian archrival in the semi-finals of the World Championship earlier this year in Melbourne where she crashed badly on the final corner and was flung across the track like a rag doll.
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When Pendleton picked herself up it was like that moment in Chariots of Fire where runner Eric Liddell slips and falls in a race in the rain in Scotland and then the camera cuts to coach Sam Mussabini – in Scotland to watch Liddell – who mutters under his breath, ‘Get up, get up, lad.’ Then Liddell picks himself up and still manages to win the race – whether thanks to God or just sheer determination being a matter of debate.
We get enough sport these days on TV – it’s a form of modern religion, sometimes afflicting people like a fever. I would argue that the Olympics is about the triumph of the competitive spirit, and I make no apologies for preferring individual excellence over such farces as Olympic football.
Watching Pendleton get up about ten seconds after being knocked senseless on the track, skidding along at an Achillean speed, and then brush herself down and be practically carried back to her bike within minutes to run the final race was a demonstration of pure Olympic spirit and sheer, bloody determination. So much more psychologically interesting than watching a bunch of overpaid football players trot around in sun-cream.
Including football seems a mistake: it is not as if we ever don’t have world class football to watch; if anything we are spoilt for choice (not that I watch the game). Whether it is the World Cup or European Championships, the sport already has its world super-class events. Adding them to the Olympics just dilutes the Olympics.
I do think the Olympics is in danger of becoming weakened by having too many sports. In the ancient Greek Olympics sports were limited to just ten; these included running, horseracing, wrestling, boxing, the pankration (a type of all-in wrestling), pentathlon and chariot races.
WHY ON EARTH – especially when the games are being hosted in Britain – not have an Olympic 2020 cricket competition with the final at Lords, the home of cricket? It makes no sense at all why beach volleyball, football and hockey were given the green light but cricket was exiled. Instead Lords is being adopted for archery – which is just posh darts.
What I like about Pendleton’s battle is that like any true epic drama – whether written by Aeschylus or Aaron Sorkin – it is ultimately personal. Deeply personal in her case, not least after Pendleton’s Australian fiancee and coach was ousted from his role in Team GB for the ‘unprofessional’ sporting crime of falling in love with her.
The daredevil cycling in the Velodrome is the closest that the modern day Olympics have to chariot races, which is why I am going to do everything to trek down to Herne Hill and see her last epic attempt to defend her gold medal.
Cycling can be a vicious and brutal sport – which is why it is so popular to watch. In the ancient games the most brutal sport was called the pankration, which translates as ‘all-powerful’. The sport was the modern equivalent of cage fighting – a combination of wrestling and boxing and gouging with almost no rules. All forms of violence were encouraged, from biting to breaking joints and gouging out eyes. Contestants often were killed which helped ensure that the pankration was by far the most popular of the sports.
Today we have high-diving, with the danger of smashing open your skull if a dive is misjudged – but that’s just another reason why football is such a joke to have been included. There’s no real risk or danger in the sport.
ONE FINAL THOUGHT about the legacy of the Olympics, which has not really been discussed. The London legacy is partly to do with the extremely fortunate fact that Her Majesty the Queen was not only able to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee earlier this year, but will be able to follow it with opening the Olympic Games themselves.
This is not because of brilliant marketing by PR boy David Cameron and his £27 million Britain is Great Campaign, but rather because of sheer luck that the two events have combined. The secret with legacy, and the secret to a successful result, is never to do things in isolation.
Years ago, I attended a series of classes at UCLA on sports management which were being given by a top sports and pop talent manager whose previous clients included Lionel Richie. (Don’t ask what I was doing there: I was going through my ‘Graduate’ phase and was just dropping in randomly on campus classes whilst working for The Times in LA.)
The most interesting and acute thing he said was about Richie and his legendary performance in front of billions at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics. At the time, when he hit the stage, the singer was performing in front of the largest televised audience in the world – ever. Billions – from Hong Kong to Peru. It was a triumphant show – and crowned Richie as a truly global pop superstar.
Yet two weeks after the Opening Ceremony, the talent agent was summarily fired by Richie. Why? Because when Richie did his gig, his manager had failed to capitalise on the global audience and had not organised for Richie to have a new album out at the time, or even a collection of greatest hits. He was just singing to several billion people – with no product to sell.
To have a true legacy for the Greatest Show on Earth, you always have to have something to sell at the same time. Cameron is using the Olympics to try and sell the Great Britain brand – which is great. I am sure there will be some gold medal hangovers, courtesy of the taxpayer, after drinks parties to promote British business in Lancaster House, which has been commandeered s a British trade pavilion.
But it is worth remembering that Lancaster House was also where Queen Elizabeth held her Coronation dinner in 1952 after being crowned, and that it is having London in the global spotlight not just once but twice in six months that is the real reason that the Olympics legacy will be successful.
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