Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The best and worst of London 2012

I absolutely love sport and in particular the festival of international sport that is the Olympic Games.  I’ve watched every Games since Los Angeles in 1984, admittedly with varying degrees of interest.  And while I’m naturally cynical at the way in which the Olympics are rapidly becoming the World Corporate Games – just another symbol of the strength of global capitalism – undoubtedly they continue to inspire, entertain, thrill, disappoint, create controversy, produce heroes and, most significantly, play host to the highest level of competitive sport. 

Unlike in previous years I have been able to remove myself from the TV screen and have been privileged to have been able to actually attend the Games.  This provides a new perspective and allows an insight into the organisation and delivery of the Games as well as offering a taste of the public appetite.  It was curious how quickly negativity subsided once the games began and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of national pride; also striking was the sense of expectation among visitors to London that these Games would be memorable for all the right reasons.  Travelling to the East End via the tube made it impossible not to encounter sporting pilgrims from various corners of the world, some more obviously patriotic than others but all carrying that infectious enthusiasm and sense of anticipation that something historic was in the making, as indeed it was.

I’m not going to attempt to meaningfully review the extraordinary last two weeks.  What I will do is to share with you the moments to me that defined the Olympics – for better and for worse.  These were truly fantastic Olympics but not everything I take away from them is positive and in the glow of national pride it is easy to overlook both these negativities and the supreme achievements of others.

Here are what I consider the best and worst of the London Olympics:


1.  The incredible performance of Manteo Mitchell, a US sprinter in the 4 x 400m relay.  It is not unusual in high-intensity games for athletes to pick up injuries and be forced to withdraw but what Mitchell managed is quite incredible.  Half way into his run, Mitchell heard a “pop” and feared the worst but knew that withdrawal would lose his team a place in the final so continued running with what was later discovered to be a broken leg.  A truly heroic performance and one which helped his team-mates secure a silver medal. 

2.  Another relay performance, this time by the American women’s team in the 4 x 100m final.  To beat arch-rivals Jamaica so convincingly and in 40.82 seconds was sensational.  To shatter the 27-year old record set by East Germany in utterly brilliant fashion was truly fantastic – and a historic step as it ensured the spectre of the former GDR, at least in sporting terms, is finally put to rest.

3.  Natalia Partyka.  I must confess to having known nothing about this Polish table-tennis player prior to having the privilege of actually watching the girl in action at the ExCeL Arena.   She has no right hand or forearm, but manages to serve effectively balancing the ball on her elbow.  She came though her second round match against the Dane Mie Skov in dramatic style, in less than an hour demonstrating the triumph of ability over disability.

4.  The crowd at the women’s football final.  The newspapers might have chosen to ignore it, but anyone actually watching the match will remember FIFA President Sepp Blatter being booed by the 80,000 people inside the ground.  For someone who represents so much of what is wrong with world sport, and who has been no friend of women’s football, it was perhaps unwise for him to have made an appearance at all, let alone presented the medals.  Fortunately the Wembley crowd was on hand to give him the treatment he fully merited.

5.  David Rudisha’s incredible run in the 800m final.  Personally, I admire 800m and 1500m runners far more than I do the 100m sprinters – it’s just a shame that the media disagree.  Whatever the amazing achievements of Usain Bolt, it takes a superior discipline and tactical awareness to run to 800m success – to do it, as Rudisha did, so comprehensively and in such time, breaking the world record in the process and in spite of his competitors posting impressive personal times, was simply amazing.  Seb Coe rated this as the stand-out performance of the London Olympics and for once I wouldn’t disagree.

6.  People feeling good about themselves.  In austerity Britain, the Olympics provided a rare opportunity to feel good about who we are and what we can offer the world.  Ok, for most of us it was just the chance for a bit of escapism, to have a bit of a party and enjoy a bit of sport.  But surely that’s the whole point of it?  If the games were a success, they should be measured as such not by the number of gold medals for Team GB, nor the commercial and economic benefits or the efficiency with which they were organised and delivered – but instead by how much the public enjoyed them.  We did, either at the games or glued to our TV sets, cheering on performances in sports such as dressage that no sane person would ordinarily even glance at.  Feeling good is priceless and it’s a long time since we have collectively been able to.

7.  Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar, who became the first woman from that country to participate in the Olympic Games .  Admittedly she lives in the USA and has dual citizenship but by choosing to represent Saudi Arabia she has forced the Saudi authorities to reconsider the role of women on sport and wider society and hopes to inspire women.    Her time and performance were in a sense academic as what was of greater significance was the moment itself – a moment of inspiration, of defiance towards religious ultra-conservatism and of championing equality: one of those rare moments when politics and sport become intertwined in a positive way.  The crowd realised the significance of Sarah’s presence and awarded her with a standing ovation.
These were the first Olympic games ever when every participating team included female athletes, a statistic suggesting that a corner has definitely been turned.  That there continues to be a huge mountain to climb to achieve genuine equality is undeniable but the momentum now certainly lies with the progressives.  I suspect Saudi Arabia will never again field a male-only team, something for which we should be grateful to Sarah Attar.

8.  Andy Murray.  Enough said. 

9.  Jade Jones’ stunning victory in taekwondo.  Team GB produced some fine Olympian performances from Laura Trott, Mary King (at 51 years old and in her sixth Olympics), Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah, Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger (finally winning gold in the fourth Games).   But Jones was the pick of them all in my view, not least that her impressive feat was entirely unexpected.  The media and British taekwondo fans were confident that Britain would secure a medal but were looking to Sarah Stephenson, not the 19 year old from North Wales.  Jones explained afterwards that “I’m still making a lot of mistakes [and at 19] I’m not fully developed yet”.  You really have to feel that the future of British taekwondo has never been brighter.

10.  The Opening Ceremony.  As a whole I found it unsatisfactory in some respects.  I felt the notions of “Britishness” it tried to communicate were narrow, stereotypical and based on a more than inaccurate “feel good” interpretation of history.  The section on the NHS was not only overly sentimental but probably made very little sense to the millions around the world watching.  But there were brilliant moments, not least the Queen jumping out of a helicopter, Mr Bean’s appearance, the coming together of the Olympic rings; the arrival of the torch and the lighting of the cauldron were brilliantly staged.  There have been so many reviews of the ceremony that to add to them seems rather pointless; suffice to say, Danny Boyle is a creative genius.

11.  A personal one – Team Hungary finishing higher in the medal table than Australia.  Who would have imagined it?

And now, the WORST...

1.  Accusations that Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen had been taking performance enhancing substances  dominated headlines on day 3 of the Games.  Of course if any athlete had been actually found using such substances, or there was any evidence with which to back up the claim, it would certainly have been a news story.  But giving credence to claims of opponents whose only basis for their suggestion was the quality of her performances (she actually swam faster than Ryan Lochte and women just, you know, aren’t supposed to do that) is not in the Olympic spirit and represents poor journalism.  Why should a gold medallist have to defend themselves at a press conference, only for the members of the press present to naturally run with the “drugs controversy” headline?  The claim was petty and malicious, something even Seb Coe suggested when asserting there was “no factual basis to support...these insinuations”.  Ye herself handled the pressure well, stating that “in other countries people have won multiple medals and people have said nothing. Why are they just criticising me? I have absolutely not taken anything.”  Of course, she hadn’t – perhaps in future the British media will not be quite so keen to play up the accusations of a bad sport ?

2.  The Olympics really did seem to bring out the worst in some people.  These included sections of the media for whom anything less than gold for British participants represented failure.  After day two ended without that as yet elusive gold medal being gained, the BBC’s highlights programme suggested that if the following day yielded no such prizes then “serious questions would be asked”.  Really?  Why not actually wait until Britain are participating in events that, you know, they’re good at?  It was ridiculous, as was the media response to Mark Cavendish’s inability to win a medal of any colour in the road race which prompted Cavendish to remark “why the stupid questions?  Do you know anything about cycling?”

The worst treatment seemed to be reserved to the inspirational and altogether lovely Rebecca Adlington who was unable to repeat the double-gold winning feat of Beijing, in part due to the rising of a new star of the pool, Katie Ledecky.  The fact that Adlington had become the most decorated woman in GB swimming history was lost on many observers, who chose to focus on disappointment rather than record-breaking achievement.  It was pitiful and disrespectful to an outstanding performer who deserved so much better.

3.  Vindictive officials.  There were some of them, given one iota of power that they were determined to wield and who seemed bent on destroying the Games for reasons unknown.  Take the case of South Korea’s Shin A-Lam who was denied a place in the final on the basis of an honest counting mistake by a 15 year-old volunteer.  Having the right of appeal, she used it – however, in spite of her being technically correct, the referee refused to reverse the decision.  Cue boos and a sit-down protest.  Worse still could be found in the velodrome in the women’s sprint semi-final when British duo Victoria Pendleton and Jess Varnish were denied a place in the final due to a takeover error.  Replays showed an infringement had taken place but, as the rules allow for a little flexibility in application and the girls didn’t actually gain an advantage from it the disqualification was harsh.  Nothing can excuse the commissar’s verdict in the final however, disqualifying the Chinese team on the basis of an apparently identical breach of the rules that scores of TV replays failed to detect.  The dictatorial official’s word is final and doesn’t, it seems, require evidence.  Sadly for China, the right to appeal in Olympic sport does not yet extend to Cycling, something that should surely be reconsidered in the light of this and the incident involving Pendleton and Anna Meares in the individual sprint final. 

4.  French accusations of cheating on the part of the Team GB cycling team.  The French questioned every GB victory, eventually expressing their collective frustration in the rather imaginative complaint that Chris Hoy et al were using “magic wheels”.  It was typically mean-spirited and shows how competitive sport can sometimes cause logic to give way to paranoia and nastiness. 

5.  Attempts by SouthKorean, Chinese and Indonesian badminton players to fix matches by deliberately losingAdmittedly, the system devised for London – replacing the previously straight-forward knock-out system at previous Games – made this kind of action more likely and perhaps the consequences should have been foreseen.  But the actions of these athletes was inexcusable, not least by the Chinese duo who had such disdain for the referee that, when threatened with disqualification, they reportedly told him that he had no authority to remove them from the next round of the competition as they had already qualified and that they would be (obviously) happy to forfeit the match in which they were playing.  The attitudes were as disappointing as the dreadful displays for which spectators had paid to watch and the four duos were all excluded from later rounds of the competition.

6.  Lazy commentators.  The football was particularly bad in this respect, with viewers sometimes left wondering if those giving the verdicts actually knew anything about one team or the other.  There were some priceless moments, but what was frustrating was the constant inability to separate Team GB from the entity that is the England National Football Team.  This was most infuriating when, after Stuart Pearce’s team was defeated on spot-kicks by South Korea, the commentators declared “and so we go out on penalties again”.  AGAIN?  When did Team GB last lose on penalties?  This kind of remark – and there were more like it – shows that the cynicism many felt towards a collective Team GB was well placed.

7.  Attempts to use the achievements of GB athletes for political purposes.  I have been absolutely appalled by the way in which senior politicians, and indeed political activists, have sought to make capital from the achievements of Team GB athletes.  The SNP’s attempt to pick out “Scolympians” was short-sighted and unnecessary, as were unionist attempts to claim that Team GB demonstrates how much “better together” we are.  The latter argument was particularly stupid as, if sporting success is to be a key factor in determining a nation’s constitutional future, it’s a great shame that China and North Korea had a particularly good Olympics.  The worst of this politicisation of the Games was in the aftermath of Andy’s Murray victory when, instead of concentrating on the impressive defeat of some Swiss guy many were instead more interested in the fact that Murray appeared to mumble a few words of the National Anthem and was draped in a Union Flag.  Unionists grasped their opportunity to spin this in the most crudely obvious of ways, while nationalists responded equally predictably.  If the Olympics proved anything, it’s how tribal Scottish politics have become.  Even the BBC’s Nick Robinson began speculating that Murray’s professional behaviour as a member of Team GB might be “noteworthy” as far as Scotland’s political future is concerned.  How responsible was that?

Politicians like to play the patriotism card and they’ve been doing that shamelessly for the last few weeks.  That’s to be expected.  Seeing unionists and nationalists exchanging tit-for-tat insults is undignified and, to my mind, disrespectful to the athletes themselves.  What was notable in that when Chris Hoy explained to the Channel 4 news that “I’m Scottish and British. I think you can be both – they are not mutually exclusive” this was seized upon by politicians and political commentators including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.  Unfortunately they failed to notice that, during the same interview, Hoy explained that it is “frustrating because as an athlete all you want to do is race and be best you can and not get dragged into politics."  Perhaps those professing respect for the man should actually have listened to him and not “dragged him into politics”?

Fortunately by the end of the Games the SNP had abandoned their emphasis on “Scolympians” and Pete Wishart MP was saying some very positive things about Mo Farah.  However, the inescapable truth is that shallow politically-minded people have seen fit to make mileage from others’ sacrifices and achievements.  As former councillor Alex Dingwall noted on facebook,I really wish all sides would stop seeking to grab the success of athletes and spin it for their cause - it's shameful for any politician to try to hijack the hard work and dedication of our athletes in this way.”  Indeed – can’t we just celebrate sport for sport’s sake?

8.  Aidan Burley.  There would have been no reason why anyone outside the Westminster bubble would have heard of this pathetic man if it were not for his outbursts on twitter in regards the Opening Ceremony, which he seemed to think was the product of some far-left conspiracy.  In particular he raged against “left-wing multi-cultural crap” forgetting that the Olympics is actually a celebration of internationalism and diversity.  Given his views on immigration, I’d like to know what he thinks of Mo Farah.  (It should be noted that the fiercely Little Englander Tory MP was born in New Zealand). 

9.  While it was great to see Sarah Attar competing and the large number of British women medallists at these games, another spectre of inequality cast its shadow over the London Games.  Research by the Sutton Trust and statistics appearing in The Guardian show that privately-educated individuals make up a disproportionate number of our athletes and that in some sports, especially equestrianism, this is at particularly high levels.  Questions must be asked about London 2012’s “inspire a generation” motto.  Inspire it to do what?  Gain a public-school education because that is the surest way to sporting success?  Will action be taken to ensure greater access to, and involvement in, competitive sport for all?  Or will elite competition continue to be dominated by those sufficiently privileged to have had an elite schooling?  

My personal view is that we cannot allow our success in London to obscure the urgent need for action.  Regrettably, the likelihood is that Team GB's considerable success will mask the reality that progress needs to be made, and it will be business as usual for the foreseeable future.

10.  The media derision of beach volleyball.  Love it or hate it, it’s now impossible to ignore it.  You might not have known that these games featured water polo, handball or Greco-Roman wrestling because practically no attention was paid to these sports by the BBC - but beach volleyball was on our screens quite frequently.  The thing is, the media love the spectacle and the culture surrounding it while simultaneously demeaning the game itself, considering it a non-sport and trivialising the achievements of its stars.  This is thoroughly depressing and must stop, as I discussed here

11.  The hijacking of the games by corporate entities.  I note that the main sponsors (Cadbury’s and McDonald’s) are not likely to produce many products enjoyed by super-fit athletes on a regular basis.  The worst example was the “deal” with Visa, that only allowed for payments via Visa cards in the main venues.  “We are proud to only take VISA” proclaimed the signs.  Proud?  Proud to deny alternative forms of payment?  What kind of pride is that?  There were of course so many other examples of rampant sports capitalism it seems wrong to single any particular example out but (while I’m not opposed to sponsorship) when it comes to limiting the choices of consumers in this way a stand needs to be made. 

12.  Finally, on a personal note, I’d like to openly criticise the extremely poor baby changing facilities at the ExCeL arena – where the only facilities in a male area were being used as a store/cleaning cupboard and where I was forced to use a women’s toilet.  As well as making assumptions on the basis of gender this is unfortunate as the level of organisation at the London Games was extraordinary and I am happy to praise the Games Makers and the organisers for creating a public event that seemed to have been considered to (almost) the smallest detail.  I hope that in Glasgow in two years’ time there is a little more recognition that there might be one or two men that have babies who need changing...

Anyway, that was the Games that was.  They were gripping, exhilarating, always interesting, often entertaining and for the most part a positive showcase for international sport.  Long live what Aidan Burley calls “multi-cultural crap”. 

All that and no mention of the incredible Michael Phelps.  Amazing!


Peter A Bell said...

"The SNP’s attempt to pick out “Scolympians” was short-sighted and unnecessary..."

Really? Apart from the deplorably ugly portmanteau word, what exactly was wrong with Alex Salmond and others paying particular attention to Scottish athletes in the same way that, for example, Yorkshire politicians singled out competitors from Yorkshire. It seems there is something of a double-standard at work here.

Andrew said...

Peter - simply because of how it was seized upon by the likes of Nick Robinson and others. It was always going to be interpreted as an overtly political statement rather than simply backing local athletes. I can't believe SNP strategists didn't understand that, or the likely divisive tribalistic diatribe that was certain to follow it.

Peter A Bell said...

Which seems to be arguing that the SNP should allow their narrative to be dictated by "the likes of Nick Robinson". The unionist and/or sensationalist media get to be the arbiters of what is "appropriate" for the SNP to say. Those SNP strategists would be fools if they permitted that. They would also be fools if they didn't recognise any statement would be given the same anti-SNP spin by a blatantly biased press. In those circumstances there is nothing to lose in speaking directly to the committed rather than trying in vain to find a form of words which can't be misrepresented.

Statements by Alex Salmond and others in the SNP which afforded special attention to Scottish athletes were absolutely no different in style and tone from the sort of things said by other politicians when encouraging or congratulating "local heroes". I say again, double standard!

k said...


Shin A Lam was my favourite moment. THe good news is this

Anonymous said...

I suppose we must always remember that the BBC has Nick Robinson, and all our pronouncements must take into consideration the bitter twist that he will put on them.

It's difficult, Andrew, to know how we are supposed to support our athletes if Robinson puts a political spin on that support.

I don't know whether the SNP, or Alex, didn't know this or work it out, or whether it was something that came off the top of Alex's head, but it's a bad job when you can't, as the elected First Minister of a country, wish your athletes well without some little man at the BBC turning it into all sorts of things that it was not.

Alex and the government have welcomed and supported the London Games. Our sports minister was there; Alex was there trying to drum up business from some of the rich and famous who were in London.

When the torch made its way around Scotland, Shona Robison actually (somewhat over the top, I thought) said that it was a marvellous opportunity for us to feel a part of the Olympics.

In actual fact it really wan't, but it was the attitude that the government took to London's games.

The government has never once badmouthed or tried to make anything political out of the Olympics. Perhaps this is because it has its own games to run in two years time, or perhaps it really did support London 2012, or at least the sporting aspect rather than the politics that Cameron et al made of it.

The rest of your report was great reading.

Andrew said...

Unfortunately it is "the likes of Nick Robinson" that actually dictate, if not the political conversation, the public perceptions of politics and politicians.

Any sensible politician, not least someone connected with what is the slickest machinery in the political business, recognises the power of the media and generally tries to use that to their advantage. Let's be honest, the "Scolympian" idea really was never going to work was it? Perhaps if support for Scottish Olympic athletes had been expressed in a different way, preferably by not appearing so disinterested in the wider achievements of Team GB, it would have been less easy for the media to respond in the way they did.

Of course, as we know, the media reporting wasn't confined to Nick Robinson. I simply pick up on what particularly crass statement from him.

Sometimes the ramifications of an action are more more important than the rightness of the action itself. Yorkshire is not currently subject to the same political tensions as Scotland, so the comparison is in some respects an unfair one. Did the "Scolympian" interventions actually achieve anything positive? probably not.

I don't doubt the SNP supported the Games. No-one can seriously contest that. Unfortunately there remains the perception that the SNP did not support Team GB (other than its Scottish participants) - a misconception perhaps but one which the SNP should have been aware of and careful to avoid reinforcing.

That said, my ire is chiefly directed at the idiocy of others who have completely misrepresented the FM and the SNP, and have successfully used Team GB and its athletes to spark an unpleasant political "debate" on Scotland's future, demonising the other side as being unpatriotic. It demeans Scotland and her politics while disrespecting the achievements (and indeed wishes) of the athletes.

Peter A Bell said...

Ghastly terminological concoctions aside, you seem to be suggesting that the SNP should have said nothing at all. Because that is the only alternative. There simply is no form of words which would not have been contorted by the unionist media. So the choice was between accepting this inevitability or making no statement at all. Which, of course, would also have been seized upon as evidence of whatever the likes of Nick Robinson wanted to claim it was evidence of.

A useful bit of advice for those who wish to minimise their stress levels is to avoid fretting about the things over which you have no control. Save your energies for the things that you can influence.

Andrew said...

I accept that final piece of wise advice Peter!

I stand by my two carefully chosen words: "short-sighted" and "unnecessary" - not necessarily wrong. The whole sorry politicisation of the games may, just may, have been avoided with a bit more care. It's hard to know for sure of course given how keen the media are to play up relatively insignificant things such as athletes draping themselves in Union flags when, technically speaking, the Saltire is not permitted for use by participants at the Olympics. I don't feel the SNP should have said nothing but clearly a First Minister of a country soon to hold an independence referendum has to be a little more careful in how he comes across than a Yorkshire constituency MP.

Something along the lines of "We hope Team GB does well and we wish our home-grown Scottish athletes particular success" might have worked a little better. Perhaps, as you say, even that would have been seized on unfairly and used by the media and unionists alike. The thing is, perceptions stick - negative ones particularly. Whatever the rights and wrongs the media was able to paint the SNP in a negative light so what was achieved? In that sense I found it short-sighted.

I would defend the FM's right to say what he likes, but retain the right to be disappointed when I perceive that, in doing so, he has perhaps handed ammunition to his opponents or inadvertently contributed to entrenching the tribal nature of Scottish politics.

Of course in the long-run this probably won't matter a jot and in 2014 no-one will be thinking about the London Olympics never mind the shamelessly crude way some have tried to use them politically. By that point we'll have moved on to Unionist arguments that the Bannockburn commemorations and Commonwealth games are being cynically used by nationalists to advance the "Yes" vote...

Anyway, as you suggest, I'll save my energies for the battles whose outcomes I can influence!

Anonymous said...

To be fair, I have to say that I wish that Alex hadn't said it, but only
because of the spin that the likes of Robinson have put on it.

You are right, Andrew. What people like Robinson say is what a fair number
of the population believe. And if Robinson, who is establishment through
and through (remember him being caught stamping on protestors' banners?)
spins it against the SNP, then it sounds like the SNP was against the rest
of the UK, which he was not, not just in sport, but in everything. It could
have been, indeed maybe was, damaging to our cause.

I wish that he has said it and that he had followed it up with 'and to
those in the rest of the UK'.

On the basis that our country was completing as part of GB (why was NI
excluded?) that would not have been unreasonable and it would have
prevented Robinson's petty and ill-informed vindictiveness.

I apologise if this is a repost. I had a"failure notice" for the last attempt.