Sunday, August 12, 2012

UK Gold

Sport. I was never any good at it and did all I could to get out of it at school. Their fault for forcing me to play rugby, football and cricket, depending on the season. Whatever the root cause, I grew up not caring for sport and, for other unrelated reasons, I don’t like our British national anthem.

So why the hell would I watch the Olympics?

Not long into the Games, my wife despaired that I was watching lots of sports that I wouldn’t show any interest in at any other time. And she was right. But I figured, surely that’s the point.

It’s not just because it was London 2012, although that did add an extra frisson of excitement to proceedings. The fact is, I’ve always had a fascination with this four-yearly celebration of sporting achievement. I have childhood memories of the whole Coe-Ovett rivalry, for instance, cheering on the likes of Daley Thompson in the Decathlon and so on. But I think my interest really came properly alive from Sydney 2000 onwards. Denise Lewis and Kelly Holmes were particular inspirations, along with Steve Redgrave and from being primarily interested in the athletics each time the Games came around I’d be drawn to watching other events. And I guess that trend peaked with this UK-based Olympics as I probably watched at least a bit of almost but not quite everything.

Fair to say, there are some sports you’re never going to get me hooked on, even if you staged them in my back yard. Water polo and handball, for example, just strike me as a bit silly; weightlifting is dull; the ‘walking’ races may be gruelling but hours of that accelerated waddling is a test of endurance for the spectator; and I’m not sure people who can shoot air-rifles at targets 10 metres away can be held in the same regard as great athletes.

Also, I’m not convinced football belongs in the Olympic Games, except when else would women’s football be accorded its time in the spotlight?

Which offers as good a segue as any into one of the many highlights of London 2012. This was a great Games for women in sport, from both a national and international perspective. First time every nation had female representatives on their teams, first time every event featured both genders. (Apart from synchronised swimming, I believe, but who knows maybe there’s an aquatic Billy Elliot waiting out there in the wings.) While part of me has to wonder why it took until the 21st century to achieve that level of parity, it’s still something I had to applaud even before any of the events had kicked off.

And I guess it was a fitting tribute that girl power led the way in the UK’s campaign for gold. In rowing, of all things. A discipline in which there hadn’t been any gold medals for women and suddenly it’s the British females who are dominant. Another personal highlight for me, not least because Helen Glover (who won that first gold with her rowing partner, Heather Stanning) hailed from Penzance, the home town of yours truly. Rest assured, we’re looking forward to giving her a rousing homecoming parade next Sunday. Go Team PZ.

It’s not like I contributed, but that’s part of the magic of these Games: that even poor ticketless plebs like myself can share in the moment, cheering the athletes on from the comfort of our own homes.

Cheering on Team GB became an addiction and they rewarded me with plenty of other outstanding highlights. Jessica Ennis winning heptathlon gold – recalling that finest hour for Denise Lewis – and in such style, with three PBs in the seven events and rounding it all off with that supreme 800m win, wanting to give the crowd that emphatic victory. Which was then followed by Greg Rutherford winning his long jump gold. Which was then followed by Mo Farrah winning what turned out to be just the first of his distance-running golds. All those golds in the velodrome courtesy of Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton et al – it’s awe-inspiring to see something we’re that good at when competing with the rest of the world. And of course Murray’s gold at the Wimblelympics which was a stunning match and, even if it featured a below-par Federer, proved we do have a tennis player who’s capable of winning those all-important Grand Slams. Nicola Adams: first ever women’s Olympic boxing champion. Jade Jones: first ever British Olympic Tae Kwon Do gold medallist. The list goes on.

Impossible to resist the urge to wave a flag at moments like that.

But just in case you think it’s all about the patriotism, I should also mention I was appropriately blown away by the likes of Michael Phelps in the pool winning his 20th – no wait, 21st – no wait, 22nd medal. The US performances on the track, especially the women. And of course the Jamaicans and Usain Bolt – expected, predictable triumphs maybe, but no less fantastic for that and the man knows how to entertain as well as race. Plus he did a Mobot. And while the press were never going to accord it the same attention, David Rudisha running that supreme 800m. Way. To. Go.

What’s more, I made a point of following the Dutch women’s hockey team, which had everything to do with their sporting prowess and nothing to do with any shallower reasons, honest. Of course, patriotism kicked back in when it came to the GB hockey girls and it was such a shame they played their best match in the bronze medal play-off instead of their semi-final, but all credit to them for the medal. Again, hockey is not something I’d normally follow at all, but they won me over.

Their missing out on the final was one of the disappointments, but that’s more of a passing shame than any grounds for grumbling or complaint. Still, in the interests of balance, it’s probably worth citing a few less glorious points. Like those idiotic badminton players who set out to lose. At least that was dumb enough to be comical. But there was a shambolic quality to both the men’s and women’s 1500m races and I don’t quite understand why our athletes would hang around so doggedly at the back of a slow race. Sure, you have your tactics, but I imagine you have to be able to adapt if things don’t go according to plan or, more to the purpose, set out to dictate the race rather than just fall in behind and react. And let some athlete with a previous doping history win. Thankfully, as far as I’m aware, these Games have been relatively untainted by the drugs spectre, but it begs the question what use is a 2-year ban for doping in an event that takes place every 4 years. Make it an 8-year ban and then see how many athletes are prepared to risk getting caught out.

Anyway, Team GB needs its next Kelly Holmes to cover those middle distances. Talent spotters take note, get out there and find her.

Crowning inglorious shake-your-head-and-bury-your-face-in-your-hands moment goes to the Brit 4x100m relay team though. If there is to be any greater investment in sport following these Games, maybe most of it should go into training our runners in the mystic art of handing over a stick. On the other hand, we don’t want to throw away money...

My final little gripe goes to the BBC, whose coverage was comprehensive, but excessively fidgety, frequently jumping between events and channels. And for Freeview viewers the best bet was resorting to dedicated online coverage, which was less than ideal and subject to decent and stable connection. It was also, let’s face it, a teeny bit partisan and I for one could have stomached seeing a few more medal ceremonies or more of the field events (irrespective of whether they involved British interest or not) instead of some of the overly dramatised film inserts that took up so much of the airtime. It’s just a suggestion, but when there are four hundred things going on there’s no real need for padding out the show.

Minor criticisms aside, it’s been a terrific inspiration. Don’t worry, that doesn’t mean I’ll be taking to a boat or a bike or a pair of running shoes in preparation for Rio. But there’s a real energising effect that comes with all the great moments, something that even unsporty couch-potato creative types can take on board as fuel for our endeavours. Along with the winners, there are those triathletes and marathon runners who maybe fall back to 66th or wherever in the field but they press on to that finish line. That takes guts and, I think, earns them a small slice of personal glory.

There’s been a real buzz these past two weeks, the Games have been the big talking point for so many people and I hope it won’t just be a case of the post-Olympic blues hitting tomorrow. After all the flags have been put away, I hope we can all take something away from the experience.

And as the politicians compete to be first out of the blocks to take the credit, I hope there’ll be some sort of long-term commitment to more investment in sport and encouraging kids. A lot of athletes have warned that it’s hard work, which is true, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to advertise it to today’s youth.

Maybe some of those companies who were so keen to attach themselves to the Games can be persuaded to pour in some private investment. Imagine future Mos mounting the podium to see a large golden M raised over the arena to the tune of dahdah dahdahdah I’m Lovin It.

One thing I do know, that old grammar-school regime I endured wasn’t the approach to take – I think what you’d want is some sort of taster sessions in various activities, leading to pupils making their own choices as to which sports they’d like to pursue. A bit like the way we had to select our range of O Levels, back in the day. You have to fit aptitude and enthusiasm to the appropriate disciplines.

There’ll still be those who, like me, aren’t cut out for sports. And that’s okay, because we’ll take up other stuff like writing.

And we’ll be more than happy to cheer the athletes on from the sidelines. Especially every four years at the Olympic Games. Especially if they’re as spectacular and inspiring as London 2012 has been.