‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well… Oh, also that parents console forlorn efforts and the thoroughly incapable are allowed to be involved’.
-Pierre De Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics movement.
I can’t find any evidence for the last bit, but I think the history books I’ve been reading must have something missing because ‘experts’ keep telling me that there are two particular events that sum up what the Olympics are all about more than anything else. Firstly, the incident of a weeping Derek Redmond being helped to finish his 400m semi final in the 1992 Barcelona games by his father after sustaining an injury halfway through. If Hollywood could stretch this into a feature length film, be sure that it would. Frankly, it is a very nice story about a father-son relationship that can warm your cockles – but that’s it. It’s nice but not the epitome of the Olympic Games.
The Olympics should be sport in its purest form at the highest level, and the presence of a billion TV followers demanding to be entertained should be as insignificant to that as Coca-Cola’s sponsorship or my Mum’s weekly yoga class. The whims and fancies of those not involved are irrelevant to sport, so that people are emotionally attached to something that happened during the Olympics does not make it significant within the Olympics. What Redmond should really be remembered for was running the fastest leg of the British 4x400m relay team that stole the Americans’ moment with a win in the Tokyo World Championships of 1991.
The second event regularly called on is that of Eric ‘the eel’ Moussambani who splashed his way to fame with a time of 1 minute 52 seconds in the men’s 100m freestyle race of the Sydeny Olympics. That is double the time of any of his competitors, and well over a minute outside the world record. Eric had never swum 8 months before the games and that race was the first time he had been in a 50 metre long pool or used a starting block to dive in, the result was that after one and a half minutes, thrashing had turned into paddling which had turned again into vague movements that may or may not propel somebody. The commentator began to question whether he would even finish the race. Thankfully he did and he probably received more attention as a result than any swimmer at the games other than Ian ‘the torpedo’ Thorpe (I wonder if a nickname is essential to success?) but he should never have been allowed there in the first place.
Surely this cannot be what the games are all about though? Colin Jackson on the BBC and Steve Bunce on ESPN certainly seem to think so though, but I think it comes from a complete misinterpretation of what is an unconvincing creed. The most important thing is to take part? Bollocks it is. If that is what you think then what of all this swifter, higher, stronger talk?
Olympians have careers unlike any other. Not many people have a job in which everything that happens for four years can live and die with a single performance. To these people the Olympics are almost pathologically important, which ensures a personal commitment towards a single moment in time unlike any other. ‘The struggle’ is those intermittent four years which, along with luck and talent, will shape an athlete’s fate as they push themselves to go faster, higher and stronger and pursue gold. The glorification of a have-a-go-hero next to the toil and ability of many who have tried and failed to make it to the games seems, at the very least, a lust for x-factor style entertainment above sport.
Unfortunately the International Olympic Committee lauds these moments more than anyone. Derek was paid to share his story by the IOC and Visa in a ‘Celebrate Humanity’ video in 2008 and was part of this year’s torch relay (to run alongside his father of course). Although unpublicised in the same way, a couple more Erics will probably be dotted around London in the same way they were in Athens and Beijing as part of the IOC’s wildcard programme, designed to give tiny nations with no resources for training a chance to take part on the biggest stage, regardless of whether they are capable or not.
The IOC and those that represent Olympic sports should stop their moral mission and realise that everything that will happen over the next month is actually about the people that are in the games striving to be better than themselves and their peers. And if some kind of feel good factor or virtue driven spin off comes from that great, but if not, so be it because good sport is good sport whether spectacular or boring. And I for one will be mounting an effort only just shy of Olympic proportions in following the trials and tribulations of extraordinary people, doing their job amidst the bizarre circus that is 2012. So this is a call to arm(chair)s for all Brits. Call in sick and cancel your holiday. Sport like this has never been seen on these shores and won’t be again during our lifetime. Don’t expect to be thrilled and amazed throughout but know that like any good book the more you invest of yourself in it, the more you are sure to get back.