Simon Barnes

Olympic Notebook

Plus: to watch the BBC you’d think the Olympics Games were Team GB against the rest of the world

Olympic Notebook
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How strange it is to be watching the Olympic Games on television. No wonder people have such rum ideas of what the whole thing is about. This is the first time I’ve watched the Games on telly since 1984; the next seven times I was in the city of choice, working for a newspaper. My first Games was Seoul in 1988 and it was there I became a sporting Galileo. I realised that Great Britain was not, after all, the centre of the Olympic universe, around which everything else revolved. No, we were just one satellite among 200 or so. Perhaps I should have been excommunicated. The man from Mars — the one who settles debates in sixth-form common rooms — would conclude from the BBC coverage that the Olympic Games was a contest between Britain and the rest of the world. That’s what comes from looking at the Games through a keyhole. You need to walk the city streets and sit in the halls and the stadiums to understand the mind-scrambling immensity of it all. The Games in Rio have 10,500 athletes competing for 300-plus medals in 42 sports. There are two species, including horses, three sexes, including geldings, and Mark Todd, aged 60, was taking part in eventing for New Zealand — and that’s the most dangerous sport of them all. The Olympic Games are about the biodiversity of humankind — and the universality of the sporting impulse.

How does it feel? What does it mean to you? The overwhelming questions of the television reporter. I’ve often talked to contestants in the Mixed Zone, that area of razor-elbowed scuffling from which that curious thing, a quote, can be found. But it’s generally only the telly people who ask how it feels. Why ask the contestants? When we want to know how something feels — something both universal and elusive, like love or grief or victory or defeat — we ask a poet. That’s their job. Or we can just ask ourselves. We are human and have empathy with other humans: we see triumph, we see disaster, and we know how it feels. That’s part of what sport itself means. The finish-line is hardly the best place for finding the killer phrase that nails the experience for all time. The Romantic poets said that such feelings must be ‘recollected in tranquillity’ before becoming poetry. So how did Kubla Khan feel when he finished Xanadu? He was over the moon. How did the Ancient Mariner feel when he killed the albatross? He was gutted. And how did he fell when the ship went down? It hasn’t sunk in yet.

I have a long-cherished theory that all non-confrontational sports are about flying. Flight, the feeling of flight, or at least the conquest of gravity: it always comes back to that. I’ll spare you the details — trust me, the argument doesn’t stand up, it takes wing — but I got the idea watching gymnastics. Perhaps my favourite move in all sport is the kovacs: the moment on the high bar when the gymnast lets go, somersaults, and then catches the bar again — or at least, that’s Plan A. And it’s all about having the courage to fly. My own Plan A for the first week of every Olympic Games I covered was to spend as much time at the gym as possible without getting fired. It was good this week to see the young Brit Nile Wilson with a terrific high-bar routine in the men’s team competition on telly. But it was better still watching the great — for the adjective is appropriate — Kohei Uchimura taking gold home for the Japanese. Make a point of watching him in the individual competitions that still remain. He can fly all right.

The row about Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme will continue for years. The fact is that Russia has a long tradition of Olympic cheating. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the big issue in Olympic sport was amateurism, the Soviet Union and satellites sent unabashed and obvious full-time professional athletes, while the International Olympic Committee, under the mad Avery Brundage, pretended not to notice. Politics first, ethics second. The end result was that amateurism, a dubious proposition at best and in practice an element of the class war, has now gone for ever. Question: will undoped sport go the same way? Russia promotes, the IOC condones, and ethics comes second once again. Will sporting audiences at the 3032 Games look back on the stand against doping with the bewildered amusement we now adopt to look back on amateurism?

High-board diving is a classic flying sport, even if it’s technically, like Buzz Lightyear, just falling with style. It’s worth switching on — just as it’s worth crossing the world — to watch the Chinese divers. The way the synchro pair, Chen Aisen and Lin Yue, performed four-and-a-half somersaults was like seeing the same man with a drunk’s double vision. And perhaps it’s the nearest humanity can get to the perfect physical action. Sport is trivial — that’s kind of the point — but the quest for perfection can never be meaningless.