Olympic trial

A.W. Purdue, who is no fan of sport, despairs at the thought of a summer given over to Games madness

June 7, 2012

It is bad enough at the best of times for those like me who have little interest in sport but are assumed at work or in the pub to be passionately concerned about the fortunes of Chelsea, Newcastle or whichever is the most popular football team in the vicinity. Our female counterparts are slightly better off, for few automatically assume their enthusiasm for sport - except perhaps when Wimbledon is on. We all, however, have to put up with the media's obsession, especially on Saturdays, when news programmes find the fate of the euro of minor interest compared with sporting events. Now, along comes the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games: for many this event promises hours of excitement, but for those of us who couldn't care less, boredom on a mega scale.

It is not as though the majority of Olympic events are popular spectator sports. At least with football and cricket, journalists and commentators can point to the large crowds at Premier League or Test matches to justify the coverage they give them. Although athletic events may draw decent audiences, the numbers pale in comparison with attendances at Celtic v Rangers or Chelsea v Tottenham games. The achievements and dedication of the competitors may be as great as or greater than that of, say, footballers, but a local athletics club doesn't draw upon the same tribal loyalties: even less energetic sports such as darts and snooker have proved more compelling to television viewers than running and swimming. Why, then, is it assumed that relentless coverage of the Olympics will delight the nation?

Many hearts must have sank when the ersatz ceremonials began in late May with the lighting of the Olympic torch by Greek maidens in a Hollywood version of classical dress. Many of the ceremonials are due to Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman responsible for the first modern Olympics in 1896, although the Olympic torch relay was one of the Third Reich's additions to de Coubertin's invented or refurbished traditions for the 1936 Games (brilliantly portrayed by Hitler's film-maker, Leni Riefenstahl). The arrival of the torch amid much jubilation brought home to us heretics that we were in for it: for days the media would report the journeys of the torch around the UK; then would come the real thing, with massive TV coverage of people jumping over hurdles, vaulting with long poles or leaping into sandpits. Unfortunate Londoners (except for those civil servants given dispensation to work from home) can expect normal life to become impossible: the journey to work impeded by traffic jams and closed roads, while Olympian officials are rushed along emptied highways in limousines.

But enough of such dyspepsia: it will all be worth it, won't it, given the boost to the economy and the legacy of swimming pools and other sporting facilities? After all, look what the 2004 Olympics did for Greece. Let's hope that lessons have been learned. Perhaps they have, and under the boisterous leadership of Boris Johnson, the capital's mayor, London's Games will be an economic success. The Daily Telegraph has already done its bit by publishing a helpful guide to the best places to buy property along the torchbearers' route.

And then there's all the friendship that sport inspires. Just as matches between rival football teams result in empathy and good-natured joshing after the game, so can we expect renewed understanding between nations and no disputes, like those over burly East European female competitors in previous Games, or questions as to whether it was the best runner or the best chemist who won. No doubt Argentines will respond with delight if Great Britain wins several golds, and Arab contestants will applaud Israeli successes. There will be lots of ancillary interest: how many female contestants will Saudi Arabia provide and what sort of sporting gear will they wear?

We dissidents will probably be won over. Some will applaud as Team GB wins the underwater basketball just because "we won", but one must not underestimate the way that commentators can make us all overnight experts and enthusiasts for sports of which we had little previous knowledge: soon the fat chap at the corner of the bar will be demonstrating just where a competitor went wrong with his backward double-somersault dive and the woman who once took some riding lessons will be offering advice to our dressage team.

It will all be a great success, but oh, for a hero like Gardner Williams, the US swimmer who, at the first of the modern Olympics, dived into the unseasonably cold water and promptly jumped out again, refusing to return.

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