I feel that I’ve let my fellow cynics down. I took a kind of unspoken personal vow to give the current Olympics a cold shoulder or two. All those millions of pounds; all those teeming crowds; all that patriotic hysteria. It wasn’t for me.
But then I kept re-running that scene from Bus Stop – when the ingenuous cowboy wanders into the truck stop and hears Marilyn Monroe’s ‘chantoose’ sing ‘That old black may-agic has got me in its spay-ell’. Sport is my old black may-agic and it’s often impossible to resist its spay-ell. I’m a sucker for human endeavour. Maybe it goes back to that talk we had at school from Chay Blythe, the man who rowed across the Atlantic. Maybe it goes back even further – to my kid sister’s and my attempt to dig a hole from London to Australia. Deeper, longer, higher, faster… As one of our rowing ‘champeens’ said: ‘This was our masterpiece. This was what we’ve been working four years to create.’ Roughly speaking. This week I’ve realised that it is for me, after all.
‘Round and round I go…’ It was the cycling that sucked me in. I was doing fine up to that point. I’d resisted all the initial ballyhoo. Then, on Wednesday morning, I did my back in while lifting a manhole cover to read some meters underneath at the chateau I superintend. I managed to climb back into the Berlingo and make my way very gingerly back home. Fortunately, my wife (have you met my wife, the healer?) has taken a couple of weeks off work and she was on hand to pick up the pieces.
|Close encounters of the cycling kind|
While under her intensive care, I have been immobilised and forbidden to do anything that might be construed as ‘useful’. So what can a man do, but stretch out in front of the telly to watch our British cyclists being marvellous and inspiring? The mere sight of the four-man pursuit team in their science-fiction helmets cycling in perfect unison, those lycra-covered legs pumping up and down like synchronised pistons, with the leader periodically peeling off to disappear up the track and then down again to slot in behind the three automata in front, well… I’m lost for words, Gaby. All those medals and all those new world records. It’s enough to make you feel proud to be British – especially once we leap-frogged over the French in the medals table.
It’s crazy. I mean, who really should give a monkey’s in the light of what’s happening in Syria, in the light of imminent global meltdown? It’s bread and circuses to keep us happy and off the streets. And it works. I even caught myself feeling ambivalent about the velodrome. It cost an obscene amount to build a stadium that will probably see very little use once they’ve extinguished that nouveau Art Nouveau-ish Olympic flame – and I’ll bet all that Siberian pine they used for the track didn’t come from properly managed forests. But maybe the expenditure was justified in terms of a monument to the men and women in lycra who conquered the world and put the Great back in Britain. Oh pu-lease! Did I think that? Do me a favour and hit the red button.
Incidentally, does anyone possess – and use – this fabled red button? I’ve got a red button on my zapper, but it turns the telly on and off – and no one’s allowed to use it, because it puts the set on standby and, as everyone should know by now, if we turned off our electronic devices properly rather than leaving them on standby, we’d obviate the need for 24 (or is it 25?) new coal-fired power stations. My daughter came back from her big adventure in London on Thursday evening to speak (among other things) of beach volleyball in Horseguards Parade. I suspect that if I had a red button to press, I’d find such daft sports on offer. Things like synchronised dressage and all those other idiotic pursuits that often seem to be the province of toffs.
Even if the women’s beach volleyball teams do wear deliciously skimpy bikinis, it’s intrinsically quite as daft as the ‘sport’ or ‘discipline’ of etching was in the 1948 London Olympics. The current Olympiad is light years removed from the cinder tracks and ideological amateurism of 1948. In those distant days of ripping yarns, the ‘just-to-compete’ Olympic ethos prevailed – which is probably why we Brits, who always did amateurism so well, won about two medals. So you can’t really compare the two games, but what troubles the sports fan in me about the current shindig are the side effects of our new ultra-professional approach to sport. I’ve found it pitiful to witness our Olympians apologising to the track- or pool-side microphone for ‘only a’ bronze or silver rather than gold. They’ve let the nation down etc.It’s only one small step from there to the samurai’s self-disembowelment. One has to hope that common sense will prevail. Personally, I found our un-fancied female judo warrior’s silver more inspiring than Sir Chris Hoy’s umpteenth gold.
This weekend the track and field events start in earnest. This is where I give up any last hope of disdainful distance. History – and the notion of the pantheon – renders me imbecilic. With lolling tongue and vacant stare, I find myself re-running all those great Olympic moments that took up long-term residence inside my grey matter: Lyn the Leap and Mary Rand at Tokyo; Tommy Smith and his fellow black-gloved protesters at Mexico; Bob Beamon defying gravity and almost clearing the sandpit; David Hemery and his nose steaming along the home straight to win the 400 meter hurdles; Sally Gunnell and the tragic Lilian Board; Don Thompson and his knotted handkerchief walking that crazy long-distance walker’s walk to glory; Sebco and Steve Ovett battling it out over the 800 and 1500 metres; Ed Moses, the coolest athlete ever to hurdle the earth; Michael Johnson, who could run at the speed of light while leaning backwards; Norn Iron’s very own delightful Mary Peters; plucky, pugnacious Brendan Foster and Lasse Viren, the elegant Finn; Kip Keino, Abebe Bikila, and Haile Gebrselassie (not be confused with the Lion of Judah); Peter Snell and John Walker, the men in black; Ron Clarke, the greatest Olympic loser of all times… And so it goes on, like a parade of shimmering ghosts.
Thanks to my wife’s ministrations, I am almost able-bodied again (in a new world record time) and ready once more to go about my daily business of simulating usefulness. Nevertheless, I shall be plonked unashamedly in front of the TV this evening, cheering on Mo Farah in the 10,000 and Sheffield’s very own and very endearing Jessica Ennis, who went to school with old friends’ assorted daughters. The heptathlon is a gruelling event that demands an incredible range of sporting excellence. If she wins, I’m not yet quite ready to leap up and down and wave my arms in the air like I just don’t care, but I’ll be cheering for all I’m worth and there in Olympic spirit with all those delirious ticket holders in that magnificent, probable white elephant of a stadium.