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Exploding a few myths about the Olympic Games
by: Simon Barnes
December 27, 201112:00AM
THE Olympic Games will be held in London in the (northern) summer, as you may have heard. The Games are difficult to get your head around. They are unique, they happen once in four years and when they come, they do so overwhelmingly, no sooner than they start, they have finished.
So, to help you in your Olympic training, I present some of the most common misconceptions about the Olympics, bringing in my experience from the past six summer Games. I have run the gamut from Ben to Bolt and here are some of the things I’ve learned.
It’s the greatest show on earth.
The Olympics were not devised for entertainment, they were devised to test athletes. Rowing in lanes in an artificial oblong lake does not make for gasping, edge-of-the-seat entertainment. It is not supposed to.
There is a perverse glory in the fact that much of the Olympic action is, as a spectacle, a bit on the dull side. That, in a way, is the point. The audience is not pandered to, the audience is privileged to witness the testing of athletes. The audience must move to embrace the spectacle, rather than sitting back waiting to be seduced.
. . .
It’s all about cheering for Britain.
The Olympics are too big to be vehicles for partisanship. For a start, Britain, even in rude Olympic health (fourth in the medals table in Beijing), will not be up there competing with China and the US. Besides, medal tables are unofficial things: do you count only golds? Or number of medals? Or three points for gold or something? Many of the biggest treats at the Games are international, or rather beyond nationality: Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps in Beijing, Russian and Chinese gymnasts, east African distance runners, Asian weight-lifters and German dressage riders.
I know all about the Olympics, I’ve watched them on telly.
You can say that of a big football tournament, when most of the time there is only one match going on across the entire competition. But at the Games there is action going on simultaneously at maybe 20 venues.
Watch the telly and you think it’s a swimming gala followed by a track and field meet. In fact, there are many sporting arenas and at each one, you can watch a person living the most important day of a lifetime: the day for which all other days have been a preparation. Watching the Olympics on TV is like looking through the keyhole.
The Olympics are about politics.
Throughout history politicians have sought to use the Olympics to score political points. Time and again, they come a cropper. The most politicised Games in history, 1936, are remembered not for Hitler but for the greatness of Jesse Owens.
The 1980 Games revealed to the world not the greatness of the Soviet Union but its grimness; the 1984 Games told us not about the greatness of American culture but its insularity and superficiality.
Last time around, the Chinese athletes competing in Beijing showed us the humanity and vulnerability that lurks behind the great stone face they attempted to show the world.
The Olympics are all about money.
No more than any other sporting event. It’s just that there is a marked divergence between the amateur past and the professional present that can jar. The Olympic McDonald’s sponsorship seems different to the World Cup McDonald’s; you’d hope for better for the Olympics, but you’d long given up hope about football. At least at the Olympics there are no electronic billboards designed to distract you from the action.
The Olympics are all about drugs.
The Olympics bring together the sports that respond best to drug use – swimming, weightlifting, cycling, track and field. But the fact that athletes are still getting caught is good, not bad. The unending efforts made to clean up sport perversely make sport look bad, but they continue because ultimately it’s what athletes and audiences all want. Great sport has attracted great cheats throughout history. That doesn’t mean that sport is about cheating.
The Olympics are about world peace.
The Olympics are stuck with a load of pious bullshit, which is an embarrassment to all intelligent people involved in the Games. There are politicians and past Olympic presidents who love all that kind of nonsense. But the
Games are not about peace, nor brotherhood, or even sisterhood. They are about sport.
The Olympic Games are all a bit Nuremberg.
There are a lot of flags, sure, and it’s high time the flag-flapping lap of honour was outlawed. But here’s the point: at Nuremberg there were many flags, but they all looked the same. At the Games there are more than 200 flags and they’re all different. Most flag-waving ceremonies are a celebration of uniformity. The Olympic Games cannot help but celebrate divergence.
The Olympic Games are like the soccer World Cup.
The events are startlingly different. The World Cup has one sport, one sex, almost all performers are in their mid-20s, 32 nations take part in the finals, which lasts for more than four weeks.
The Games have 42 disciplines in 28 sports, both sexes, competitors aged from 16 to about 60, more than 200 nations and last a little more than a fortnight.
The World Cup is a celebration of monoculture: the Games are a celebration of human, and for that matter equine, diversity. The World Cup is primarily about partisanship; the Olympic Games, partisanship is secondary (outside the US, anyway).
The Olympic Games are all about winning.
The Games are mostly about winning. I’ll leave the taking-part business for another day; it’s something that still counts, but I want to keep this guide free from anything that looks like traditional Olympic bullshit. And even for the winners, there is something more than mere victory to aim for.
At the Olympics it is possible to beat not only your opponents but everyone else in history as well. World records are part of the Games. I’ve been there for a good few, Bolt and Yelena Isinbayeva at the previous Games. A world record in an Olympic context is one of the most compelling experiences in sport.
The Olympic Games are sport, so it’s all just another bloke thing.
Not at all. The Olympics are not about men, they are about women. Women have taken an increasing part in the Games over the course of recent decades.
Their role, said the modern Games founder, Baron de Coubertin, was to crown the victors with laurels. Women are now running the marathon, risking their necks in three-day eventing, diving from the 10m board, throwing back-somersaults on the beam and making synchronised swimming look easy.
The last day in London will be centred on the women’s modern pentathlon, the sport De Coubertin invented. But women have been multi-tasking with swords, pistols, horses, swimsuits and their own fleet feet since 2000. The Games are about the biodiversity of humankind and the human love of competition in all its endless variety, and with it, the pursuit of glory and the pursuit of the still more distant goal of excellence.