The London 2012 Olympics, seen from a distance of more than a thousand miles, is a peculiar, shimmering thing. Our capital city dominates the news every night but, for reasons which I cannot explain, the Croatians are not exultant about the fact that we have won lots of gold medals at rowing and stuff. It always brings one up short, being abroad and finding that these swarthy foreigners do not think that we are as important as we think we are. Here in Dalmatia the Olympics coverage concentrates almost exclusively on those sports played with great enthusiasm by fractured bits of the southern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the cabal of squabbling countries who were commies but not Warsaw Pact. So every day, all day, it’s water polo and — even more so — handball.
This is a game which seems to have been based on that quite funny Ben Stiller film Dodgeball, and might be best described as basketball for whites. The Croats, in particular, are very good at it and their ‘ladies’ dispatched our ‘ladies’ with embarrassing ease. They did not gloat, though; that was reserved for victories in the real crunch games against Serbia and then Montenegro. Just occasionally, in the gaps between these frantic matches, when they are not showing interviews with the surly Balkan coaches, you get a glimpse on Croatian TV of the other stuff going on at the games — the 100 metres sprint final, for example, or some lubricious Chinese babe doing the splits. But nobody takes those sorts of sports terribly seriously out here, any more than we take handball seriously.
Leaving the country for the duration of the Olympics was not quite the straightforward decision I pretended to everybody that it was. Oh, y’know, can’t stand the hype and the relentlessness of it, its unavoidability, the slightly fascistic screeching in support of ‘Team GB’, as we have been enjoined to call it, so decided to take a holiday away from it all. Those were the stated reasons, the plaint of the weary cynic. And all of it is true enough, I suppose — but the real reason I wanted to get out is because I knew I would get sucked into it all and would end up distraught or infuriated when one of our boys, or girls, was beaten by some cheating foreigner.
I hate it when that happens. I cannot bear to watch British people lose at anything, not even if they are Scottish or Welsh British people who therefore hate us even more than the French do. In the first few days of the games, when France was ahead of us in the medal table and we languished in 20th place, I shielded my eyes from the TV screen, so upset was I. Infantile chauvinism, without doubt, and with nothing whatsoever to commend it. Sport is fun to do and a little less fun to watch; the horrible importance it is these days afforded says something rather base about all of us, not least me. It should be a genial distraction, not a cause or, worse, a vocation.
Which is why I rather hope the Islamic athletes competing at London 2012 decide to comply with the strictures of their religion and fast for the duration of the games. For the first time in 32 years the Olympics has coincided with Ramadan — a particularly stressful Ramadan, too, being in midsummer and requiring of its adherents to lay off the food and drink from 0400 to 2100. The Muslim world has been split regarding how to cope with this stricture; obviously, it is difficult to throw the hammer or run 10,000 metres if your stomach’s rumbling and you haven’t had your shot of concentrated sugar.
Bahrain and Egypt have told their athletes that there is no compulsion to fast; the Tunisian volleyball team, however, will be fasting en masse. Some Muslim athletes have taken what seems to me an easy way out by postponing Ramadan for a month — surprisingly, perhaps, this has been the get-out clause triggered by the usually somewhat stringent Saudi Arabians (and the Indonesians). The Koran, and Mohammed’s Hadiths, offer a number of exemptions for people who wish to stuff their faces during the fasting period. Women who are menstruating or pregnant, for example, or people who are travelling, or are sick, or are preparing to blow up godless infidel cockroaches. British Muslim competitors, meanwhile, have been offered conflicting advice from the various self-appointed organisations which claim to represent them.
I have plenty of problems with the ideology of Islam, but none at all with its requirement for self-effacement and self-denial, its insistence upon humility and seriousness. It is one of the things which we over here have lost, despite the fact that the Bible is scarcely less demanding of such qualities. It is one of the parts of the Bible which we think we can do without these days, because it is an inconvenience to be serious and self-denying when there is fun to be had and food to be eaten. So it seems to me rather a shame that the Muslim world seems, in the main, prepared to turn a blind eye to infractions of its faith simply because there’s this great big godless corporate jamboree being held in London.