Sport Fittingly, due to the interminable anticlimactic closing ceremony overrunning, BBC One’s first non-news, non-sport programme in sixteen days was The Sky at Night. Having spent over two weeks cheering on and sharing tears with the kinds of people I’d never have been friends with at school, here was twenty minutes with exactly my peer group. The general agreement online was that this surreal selection, with its forty-year-old archive footage of Patrick Moore visiting a backyard observatory and contemporary shots of three blokes in striped shirts pouring over celestial observations was somehow the perfect choice, so BBC, so British and far better than the scheduled programme, a repeat of Live at the Apollo.
For most of us, this has been an Olympics on television, perhaps me more than most. For sixteen days I sat for most of my waking hours with my eyes transfixed on two screens, the large HD rectangle showing the championship and this computer following events on the BBC’s live blog and via Twitter. Somehow I contrived to watch all but two of the British gold medals won live and only because those two, Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott in the canoe double and Luke Campbell the boxing bantamweight because they clashed with gold hopes elsewhere and I couldn’t watch both. I still made sure I was there for the medal ceremonies though, balling allowed the national anthem once again to make up for it.
I hadn’t meant to spend the period like this, and on a couple of days, like “super Saturday” (when TeamGB won six golds) it was out of necessity, but the process of following the channels, keeping an eye out for potential winners fed into my obsessive gene just as the excitement of watching a British athlete fulfil their dream, screaming their name, roaring, heart pumping, applauding became an addiction, just as seeing those hopes dashed added to the emotional ebb and flow. When Team GB failed to win any medals last Wednesday, I had a genuinely listless day, not entirely sure what to do with myself. As with all vicarious obsessions and addictions, the televised version of these games took me over.
My favourite wins were when the athlete was entirely surprised they’d one, the natural expectation of failure as though they hadn’t noticed their own achievement over the previous however long it was, some sports requiring minutes of concentrated activity, others sheer days. The wide eyes and open mouths we saw so many times from so many athletes after having needed to be told either by an electronic scoreboard or a team mate that yes, they had won and even broken a record. But sometimes it wasn’t about medals, it was just about doing better than ever. Getting to a semi-final, beating a personal best or as was the case of Handball, just the winning of a set and making Olympic history.
Olympic history was talked about a lot. Over and time again we were reminded that this was the first medal one in whatever sport for the first time in decades or even in some cases a century. This was also the most medals won across the board by the British team since 1908, since the first modern Olympics but that was a very different championship, with far fewer countries participating and just British athletes participating in some sports it hardly counts. I don’t remember the track successes of the eighties and due to time differences and work patterns missed most of anything else somehow. This was the first time I can definitely say I’ve seen I've seen games history.
Perhaps hanging on to Team GB’s successes could be seen as jingoistic, even to the point of cheering on swimmers as they fight their own battles not to finish races in last place rather than watching the Phelpsian achievement at the front, but with so much sport available even just across the four Freeview channels I had access to, it was a way of applying a narrative as this hyperlink drama unfolding across those two weeks. Presumably some people will have spent their fortnight just watching their favourite sport at the expense of everything else, the tennis, the handball, the football even. But being intensely interested in everything, I couldn’t do that. So I found myself making value judgements between equestrian and BMX, rowing and swimming, about what I'd really like to watch.
For a few days it felt like Britain, or rather Britain’s understanding of the sporting landscape had shifted on its access, best illustrated on Super Saturday when after showing the three Gold medals won on the athletics track, the BBC’s coverage, ironically front by Gary Linekar who’s been markedly on the back foot for much of his tenure in prime time, cut to the men’s football team who’s very existence was the subject of so much media scrutiny beforehand lost to South Korea during a penalty shootout. For a few brief moments it was as though the Olympic narrative had gained sentience as was telling the viewer, “You’re backing the wrong team” or as was the case, the wrong sport, our so called national game made to look predictably foolish.
Or more specifically the national game as played by its more prominent proponents. Women’s football, despite reaching roughly the same point of success in their competition gained more publicity than it ever has, more spectators, and they utilised it to show that their favourite game could be played with skill, excitement, passion but also humanity and a sense of teamspersonship missing from the male counterpart. More than once I heard and saw people wonder why women’s football didn’t have the same following, why they didn’t watch it and I felt myself agreeing wanting to watch a game for which I’ve had such enmity all these years. When they ultimately did lose to Canada, their manager, Hope Powell cried. They all did. It meant something.
Sadly we all know there hasn’t necessarily been a sea change. Some kids in the park this morning were attempting to play handball, a sport which has been given lashings of prime time coverage but quickly returned to playing cricket pretty quickly instead. The national mindset, led by the media, is too rigid to abandon its long held tribes and habits to make way for cheering on hockey teams or obsess over basketball statistics. While some of us might wish that the choice of national game will become more democratic, egalitarian, people will still prefer men with balls running or walking around fields of various sizes over women balletically throwing similar balls around even if in some cases it requires just as much skill if not more so.
And as the burners which made up the Olympic flame were extinguished, well, reader, I cried. I cried a lot yesterday, through endless slow motion montages of the events of the previous two weeks, through Eddie Butler’s poetic narration encapsulating the mood of what we’ve witness, through the various presenters and commentators who’ve introduced us to these sports thanking us for watching and the privilege of taking part. If the mess of a closing ceremony, despite the best efforts of Eric Idle, did reintroduce in some of us the cynicism we’ve lacked over the past few weeks, it’s a mark of its achievement that some of us are also still talking about it and hopefully will do still in a couple of weeks when the Paralympics begin.