You’ll have to excuse me if part way through this review I stop writing in full sentences and start making happy noises. You see, I’ve done pretty much nothing for the last two weeks but watch The Olympics, and it’s been absolutely outstanding.
From a sporting point of view it’s been a marvel. That we get to live during a time with the likes of Bolt, Phelps, Biles, Farah, Trott etc. has simply been a joy. While I’m sure many thought scientific advances and technology would suck the fun out of sport, if anything it’s had the opposite effect. We are seeing human beings at the absolute peak of their sporting ability and it’s an incredible experience. Setting an alarm to wake up at 2.30am to watch Bolt chasing the “Triple Triple” was a treat, not a burden. And I’m someone who loves my sleep.
But it’s not just 100m sprinting that’s worth watching. Every four years I wonder why I subject myself to watching so much football when there are plenty of other sports I enjoy. Off the top of my head I can roll off gymnastics, cycling and handball as events I’ve fallen in love with and yet probably won’t watch again until 2020. That seems a shame, and yet I can be fairly guaranteed it’ll happen.
The gymnastics in particular was brilliant. Max Whitlock will get a lot of the attention over here, Simone Biles throughout the rest of the world, but honestly the entire sport, from pummel horse to bars to floor is outstanding. Same with so many other sports. If I wasn’t 28 and lazy as sh*t it would have totally inspired me to have a go at it. Everything just looked so much fun.
The downside to watching so much sport is that you become an armchair expert. It doesn’t matter what the event is, within minutes I’ll think I know it inside and out. “Oh no” I’d proclaim from my sofa, watching the 3m springboard diving finals. “That won’t score high, he over-rotated on entry”, as if I’ve so much as seen someone jump in to a pool in the last four years.
I mean, I say I’ll understand every sport, but that’s not strictly true. Case in point: what the f*ck is dressage?
Seriously, I know people who swear by it. But me? I think it’s absolutely batsh*t crazy. Maybe I just get distracted when trying to think of who in the hell decided teaching a horse to dance would make an Olympic-worthy sport. And, like, what’s the difference between this and a random event from Crufts? Is it that the dogs don’t have small humans sat on their backs while they perform the tricks? Because that seems like an odd distinction to have to make.
But yeah, dressage is weird. Unless it’s overdubbed with Kanye. Then it works far better, and I can only imagine is the future of the sport.
In fact, the only thing weirder than dressage is the guy riding the bike at the start of the Keirin. That’s straight up hilarious and I’ll never not find that funny. It looks like something from a Mr Bean sketch.
Well, that and the walking. They say the rules are you need to have a foot on the ground at all times, but I’m not so sure. That’s my “I desperately need to pee and I’m about to miss a train” walk. Maybe that’s what’s going on there.
But for the most part this has been a brilliant way to spend two weeks.
I think a lot of the enjoyment of the Olympics as a Brit these days is in how good we are. I know that the National Lottery funding is mostly to thank (and if you didn’t know that listen to literally every post-event interview, where they must have been contractually obligated to mention it), but it’s so enjoyable to watch. When my main memories of watching British sport as a child involved England f*cking up football tournaments (at least some things don’t change) it’s such a thrill to be able to watch hour upon hours of sports and see us be *gasp* quite good.
It’s worth mentioning a part of this enjoyment is from the BBC. We really are lucky to have something like it, and their sports coverage is always second-to-none. Yeah, we moan about bits of it, but to have the access we had completely ad-free made the experience what it was. Clare Balding was a treat as always, but so too were Michael Johnson, Steve Cram, Chris Hoy, Leon Taylor, Mark Chapman, Helen Skelton, etc, etc, etc. Sure, John Inverdale was a colossal d*ck, but what do you expect? The Olympics can only achieve so much.
It really felt like a breath of fresh air when you become accustomed to the football-style of punditry, in which 90% of the analysis is done for mouth-breathing, brain-dead morons who buy in to The Sun’s frankly antiquated and insulting view of what sport is.
So too did the interviews, where (unlike football) we got to hear from people who aren’t media-trained from birth to say as little as possible. It meant that pretty much everyone who ended up in front of the camera cried for one reason or another, but it felt real. If you could you watch Lutalo Mohammed completely crumble after losing gold in the last second and not feel something then you’re a stronger person than me. And also probably a liar.
Look, I’m the least nationalistic person in the world, but even I can’t help but get a sense of pride when watching Team GB be so bloody good. If the first Olympics I could properly remember was this year in Rio instead of in ’96 Atlanta (where we won one gold) there’s every chance it would have made me want to push to become an Olympian myself. P.E. would have had a whole different meaning than just an opportunity not to do schoolwork. I can only hope it has the same impact of the youth of today. There’s enough out there in the world to distract them from being healthy and motivated (sugar and TV to name two of my favourite things) that something like this can only be good for them.
But it’s not only the youngsters that needed this success. After everything we’ve been through as a country recently, with the looming sense of us being separated from the rest of the continent and, hell, us being divided as a nation, it was pretty amazing to feel everyone be brought back together and supporting the same thing again. For the first time in a while I didn’t hate being British. That’s actually pretty amazing.
This was never clearer to me than when Andy Murray won gold. I love Murray, and have been firmly in his camp even back in the days of when he “hated England” (which was never really true). Watching him win Wimbledon, TWICE, was one of the very highest moments in my sporting fandom.
And yet I’ve never been more behind him than during the fourth set of his final against Juan Martin Del Potro last weekend. Sure, a lot of that was down to me staying up until 1am after a busy weekend and with work the next day, but it was still a special moment. I’ve never wanted a tennis player to avoid a fifth set quite so much.
In fact, we’ve been so unbelievably successful again that it felt like much of the Games as a GB fan was a record-keeping process, where 50% of every conversation was in relation to numbers rather than enjoyment. Everything had to be measured.
Would we have our most successful non-home Olympics ever? Could we beat the 2012 total? Could we beat China? Would we finish second? Could we become the first country to improve a medal tally after hosting?
Would Wiggins become the most decorated British athlete ever? Would Kenny get the joint highest number of golds? Would Trott win the highest amount of gold medals of any British female ever? Would Grainger become the most decorated female British Olympian? Would Whitlock be the first to win a British gold in gymnastics? Would Adams become the first British boxer to retain Olympics titles in 92 years? Would we win our first hockey gold? Would Skelton become our oldest gold-winner in 108 years? Would Murray become the first male tennis player to win two golds? Would Peaty become the first British male to win a swimming gold since 1988? Would Farah become the world’s most successful long distance runner?
The answer to all of the above was of course a resounding “yes”. The records fell so quickly they actually started to lose a little meaning. Sports Personality of the Year is going to be a bitch to vote on this year.
And with that the discussion of who is Britain’s greatest Olympian begins again.
(For what it’s worth, my vote still goes to Sir Steve Redgrave. Whilst not a “record holder” anymore, that he won his five golds over five successive Olympics – unlike someone like Kenny who, great as he is, can win multiple in one Olympics – and at a time when we were terrible still means something to me. Riding a wave of momentum and Lottery funding is still fantastic, but pulling one out of the bag when no-one else is able to is pretty special. Plus he gets extra points for hating John Inverdale).
But these kind of conversations miss the point of what makes the Olympics special.
Records will be broken, tallies will be added and “most successful” or “greatest” or whatever you want to say will be bandied around without a care in the world, but the real measure is the joy it brings. People forget the records Michael Johnson broke in ’96, but I can still remember trying to replicate his running style in the playground the next day.
It’s the moments – Trott and Kenny’s kiss, Mohammed’s tears, Farah’s celebration – that really matter. Watching the highlights package makes the hairs on my arm stand up and my eyes feel a little glossy. It’s been such an enormous pleasure to experience another Olympics, and it makes me more than a little sad to know that it’ll be four years before I get to do this again.
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For those of you who saw my Premier League predictions based on team nicknames last week, you’ll be shocked to hear that none of them came in. Although I correctly said Man City, Hull, Spurs, Everton and West Ham would win, I got the scores wrong by just 8,054 goals. So pretty close.