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Earlier this month the BBC was previewing the Olympic Games, which will have just ended as this comes to print. They showed a video montage of the opening ceremony from the London Games, at the end of which we were told the Brazilians were spending only 10 per cent as much on their opening ceremony as London had. This unspoken willing in the British media for the Rio Games to be, if not crap, nowhere near as good as the London version has been palpable and desperate.
In the studio the presenter Clare Balding, who is basically ‘The Last Night Of The Proms’ made flesh and dwelt among us, was discussing the potential highlights of the fortnight with two legendary Olympians, the retired American 200m/400m runner Michael Johnson and British rower Sir Steve Redgrave.
Redgrave, of course, won rowing Gold at five consecutive Games, in spite of struggling with type 1 diabetes and ulcerative colitis. Without skipping a beat, he said his highlight in this Games would be the New Zealand rowing pair, who were so far ahead of their opposition as to be practically unbeatable. The camera panned back to Balding to finish the show. She could barely have looked more shocked if Redgrave has said his highlight would be checking out the budgie-smugglers on the Hungarian men’s water polo team.
“Umm, yes Steve… and how fitting that you would choose the New Zealand competitors, because of course there will be lots of countries competing at these Games and you will be seeing all of them here on the BBC.”
Now, the dark pall of post-Brexit angst that envelopes this country notwithstanding, can you imagine any other place on God’s earth where the audience would have to have that explained to them?
There’s unfairness and cheats and arseholes in every walk of life and the message should be that you fight every day to overcome them rather than taking your ball and going home
I wonder if this has infected much of the comment we have heard in the run-up to these Games about them being tarnished and meaningless. People have seemed in a real hurry to tell you this, reminiscent of lads who can’t wait to tell you they’ve no interest in soccer. Personally, I have no interest in musical theatre but I don’t usually use that fact as a conversation opener. The drug-taking and cheating at an organised and systematic level is pretty sickening, but anyone who avidly watches the Six Nations and Champions League and tells you they’ve no interest in the Olympics on account of doping is committing an absolutely leviathan act of self-deception.
Sport reflects life. We love it most when it reflects our better selves but more often than not we have to take it as we find it, in all its ugliness and imperfection. There’s unfairness and cheats and arseholes in every walk of life and the message should be that you fight every day to overcome them rather than taking your ball and going home. When I write a paper, I painstakingly take many dozens of hours I don’t have to spare honestly and diligently gathering and analysing the data, only to have it torn to shreds by journal reviewers. To compete for the biggest ones, you need resources no honest jobbing clinician has. If I’m lucky, I get to present it at our Olympics, the big international meetings, to watch a bunch of lads who are basically pharma shills strut around like Usain Bolt. One came to speak to us recently and it was patently obvious he’d never read his slides before in his life. If you could just forget the money he was being paid to do it, it was pretty funny. Yes, they usually win but sometimes they screw up and when they do, we can enjoy it.
In that spirit, the Olympics are about enjoying what’s there to be enjoyed. That could be a person making a final or beating odds just to be there, or a cheat getting their comeuppance, as much as someone winning a medal or breaking a record. Sonia O’Sullivan was robbed of a medal by a drug cheat in 1992, but we all more vividly recall the human drama of her heartbreak in 1996 and redemption in 2000. I also remember watching the American women’s gymnastics team in Atlanta winning Gold because a teenager landed perfectly on a broken ankle. When else would you see that? Or give enough of a damn about it to still savour it 20 years later? And when my daughter asked me on Saturday as we watched the men’s cycling race if there were girls in the Olympics, I was able to tell her about the amazing Irish rower Dr Sinead Lynch, who I was honoured to have taught and worked with and explain her brilliant background story.
No doubt at some point in the last two weeks somebody has restored your faith (maybe Annalise Murphy or the O’Donovan brothers), and the Olympics has through its exposition of human endeavour, again shown itself to have an indefatigable capacity to withstand its own awfulness.
And sometimes, it feels life is just like that.