On Olympic Positivity

‘I can’t believe it’s been four years since 2012!’

The words on everyone’s lips at the moment it seems. With Rio only days away, and only pushed out of the news by the car crash that is British politics at the moment, harking back to the halcyon days that were the London Olympics is basically inevitable. The record breakers of four years ago are on our lips again – are they about to have their records broken? Can the injury-beset Usain Bolt hold onto his title as the world’s fastest man? (Answer, probably.) Can records even keep being broken (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/science/why-do-some-olympic-records-get-broken)?

I, for one, am planning my life around watching the Olympics and Paralympics. If this results in my becoming temporarily nocturnal (for us Brits the opening ceremony starts at 20 to midnight) so be it. Aside from occasionally tweeting my joy and/or despair at a result I’ll be uncontactable via social media, phone, or even carrier pigeon. I am 110% Olympic nuts. The same goes for the Paralympics. Those athletes are something else, and many better writers than me have devoted thousands of words to trying to quantify our admiration for them. As far as I’m concerned, the current Channel 4 Paralympic advert is one of the best ways of demonstrating how ridiculous the entire thing is (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IocLkk3aYlk).

But that’s the Paralympics, and that deserves its own blog.

Our television met a tragic and abrupt end the morning after the Opening Ceremony, having stuttered its way through Danny Boyle’s triumph. Thus my mum and I rushed to John Lewis (at my urging) to replace it and found ourselves standing in the electronics department, along with 50 or so other shoppers and staff, utterly transfixed by Helen Glover and Heather Stanning rowing their way to Britain’s first gold medal of the games. Such was the power of the Olympics that the sales assistants, usually going out of their way to offer aid, were brushing questions away, transfixed by the multitude of screens, all tuned to the Olympics. Not that there were many questions, the shop floor was full of punters equally glued to the screen, most of whom had never been interested in rowing in their lives. As they stormed to victory the viewing crowd began to dissipate, finding the shoes they’d originally come in for more interesting, but the moment had been magical.

And this sense of magic continued – if you ask any Brit what the Olympics were like, even those who didn’t really care or watch much of it, the answer is likely to be that it was really really positive, the equivalent of a more excitable nation going ‘HOLY HELL IT WAS THE BEST THING EVER!’ and breaking out the bunting. Everything was sunnier than usual, people smiled on the tube, Britain was being weirdly successful. And it wasn’t just Britain that made people smile – the tiny country of Grenada won its first Gold ever at the feet of Kirani James in the 400m. The unbridled elation of Bert Le Clos, whose son Chad who took gold in the 200m butterfly above Michael Phelps, so happy he could barely get his words out. The comedic brilliance of Mr Bean playing Chariots of Fire (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwzjlmBLfrQ) … everyone was smiling.

The four-yearly celebration is of pure sporting success, no matter what your background: whether you’re male or female, skinny or stacked, tall and elegant like the gymnasts, or weirdly fishlike, like the swimmers. It is exactly what sport should be, and indeed what the coverage of sport should be. Fashion critiques of female competitors are quashed by their only appearing in team kit (and that is fairly and rightly judged), honesty and good behaviour isn’t so much encouraged as required, joy is found everywhere. You only need to look at Tom Daley’s mental celebrations when he claimed bronze in the diving (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2012/aug/12/london-2012-tom-daley-bronze-pool-party).

Rio is stumbling its way towards opening night, tripping over seemingly endless problems; some minor, some undoubtedly more serious. But, lest we forget, the road to London was not smooth running either. When the first starting gun went though, something incredible happened. Something that will happen again in Rio. The athletes started running and swimming and shooting and cycling and rowing and riding and jumping and throwing and everything else was forgotten. No one really gives a shit now that the wrong Korean flag was raised (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18993023) or that the mascots were, quite frankly, nightmarish. Instead we still remember how monumentally happy everyone taking part was, how inspirational the athletes were, and how fantastic it was to see the hordes of American or Australian athletes parading through the stadium celebrated on exactly the same level as the two competitors from Bhutan.

The Olympics shows us a small glimpse of Utopia – a place where everyone is celebrated for their achievements and supported in their moments of loss. Few things are guaranteed to make me tear up as much as the video of Derek Redmond being carried to the finish line by his father in the ’92 Barcelona games (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2G8KVzTwfw). Few things are as symbolic as Jesse Owens winning Gold in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Hitler. Few things demonstrate the intersection of sports and culture as much as the Black Power salute of 1968.

The Olympics is hugely powerful. It shows us humanity at its greatest, and no matter how rough around the edges Rio may be, that will still shine through.

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