Friday 22 August 2008

Geoff Kidder’s Olympic blog - part six

The Institute of Ideas' Geoff Kidder on the Beijing Olympics

The Beijing Olympics continue to be a great success for Team GB, and long may it last. There has though been some discussion about the sports at which Britain has been successful, including radio phone-ins weighing up the value of rowing and sailing, at which Britain has excelled, but which are widely seen as minority sports for the privileged. Some argue that even in a global activity such as cycling, the resources needed to compete at elite level are such that only a few nations will ever contend for medals. Has our success been concentrated in so called ‘middle class’ sports? If so does it matter?

In The Times Matthew Syed writes: Beijing, rowing has 14 medal events, sailing 11 and equestrianism 6. If the International Olympic Committee believes that these sports are accessible to anyone beyond a tiny clique in the Western world it is even more deluded than previously thought

Syed argues that this is a legacy of the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin founder of the modern Olympic movement: ‘he packed it with sports affordable only to his fellow aristocrats, thus excluding the Third World’. It is certainly true that rowing is a sport associated with elite universities, and ‘society’ events such as the Henley Regatta. It is also true that the breakthrough in African rowing may be some years off. If you compare this with the 100 metres, which can be run by almost anyone anywhere, and consists of athletes from all over the world, then it is no surprise that the prestige of the 100 metres is higher and always will be.

The Olympics quite rightly has blue riband events, including the 100 metres, High Jump, Long Jump and the Marathon which have a universalism and symbolism, giving them a high prestige. Even within track and field there are events like the Triple Jump (hop, skip, jump), which is very much a derivative of the Long Jump, and therefore does not have the cachet of the latter.

Having said this, rowing is a tough sport with a strong tradition, involving years of dedication and training to achieve a clear goal. It may not be the 100 metres sprint, but it is an important sport in its own right. While Syed makes some telling points, I feel that much of the criticism of the minority or ‘middle class’ events comes with a heavy dose of cynicism and mocking of the social origins of the event and the alleged social background of the participants.

Germany won the Olympic team dressage gold medal

Take Dressage. You could argue that it is a very peculiar event for horses and riders at the best of times, and even more so at the Olympics. But having read David Mitchell writing on the Guardian sport blog, I find myself with some sympathy for the ‘equestrian community’. In his article Ballroom Dancing for Horses, Mitchell makes the correct point that the best Olympic sports are those with a clearly defined aim: eg, who runs fastest, jumps highest etc. But his criticism of Dressage is laced with cynicism. He does not understand the rules of dressage, and in the spirit of those stupid books purporting to explain the rules of cricket to a foreigner, he proceeds to mock the event and those who participate in it. I love cricket and recognise that to understand it, you need to watch it, absorb it and learn its nuances. I am quite prepared to believe that understanding the mastery of a horse in different situations involves a similar process. There is an argument that mastering a horse, like archery, is a rather antiquated sport for a modern Olympiad, but it is still a skill which takes many years of hard work to master.

Mitchell and his ilk feed off the fashionable anti-elitism and criticism of posh people as ‘toffs’, which is de riguer in the dog days of New Labour; he even gets in a dig about fox hunting. Making snide remarks about the event and the social background of those who compete in it is very easy, but says more about the laziness of the critics than the qualities of the Olympians. After Nicole Cooke won her gold medal in Beijing, Radio 5Live had a studio chat, during which an identikit BBC ‘comedian’ said he was watching the race in anticipation of the cyclists falling off their bikes. This kind of mockery shows a disdain for achievement rather than any kind of critical reflection.

While recognising that some Olympic disciplines have more prestige than others, I have no time for those who ridicule people from any social background who have devoted their life to mastering a sporting discipline. In this blog I have deliberately tried to accentuate the positive and give as little grist to the cynics mill as possible. I would advise others to do the same.

On yer bike

Team GB may be counting on more cycling gold medals at 2012, but John Fahey, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, may have other ideas. He has said ‘I think weightlifting understands, as cycling understands, that there is a huge risk for both those sports if the cheating is continued and continued to be exposed.’ Up until now the International Olympic Committee has been the arbiter of which sports are included in the Olympics, but now Fahey thinks he knows better.The anti-doping industry has been given so much power over world sport it is hardly surprising that its leader now thinks he is now entitled to play God.  Someone needs to tell him to get on his bike.

Read on: part seven

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