Sport: Drug cheats and burning doves can't disguise the trauma of the No-bag Olympics

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON THE REAL AND THE COUNTERFEIT
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The Independent Online
I suppose it is a campaign medal really. Of sorts, anyway. Although I can't help but feel that enduring a four-day trip to Rome hardly merits a decoration.

There it sits, in its snug green box - Dad's Roman coin, as my six-year- old describes it. I served.

"What did you do in the European Athletics Cup of 1993, Daddy?" he asks. "Daddy, did you ever have to kill a man when you were serving in Rome?"

The idea of the gift, I presume, was to assure the attending representatives of the international written press that they were champions themselves within the worldwide - or at least, pan-European - Family of Athletics.

Now that is a curious image to foster, although there is something in it - the world of athletics contains more than enough bickering to make it feel like a real family.

But the gesture is one that has been made on many occasions at many venues. And every time it feels wrong. Because medals are things you give to athletes or soldiers. What we press boys really want is bags.

The Seoul Olympics of 1988 are remembered for many things - the unscheduled "dove incineration" section of the opening ceremony, the scandalous refereeing of the boxing tournament, and the stupendous exposure of the 100-metres champion Ben Johnson as a drugs cheat. If only De Coubertin could have lived to witness it all.

But for many of my colleagues, that Olympics will always be associated with a traumatic moment of revelation that occurred as they entered the press village.

One of their number, a flamboyant Brummie with a taste for rainbow-hued Joe 90 specs, had arrived a day earlier and was on hand to offer them this lugubrious greeting: "Welcome to the No-bag Olympics." Effectively, the thing was dead in the water from there on in.

Four years later, I'm happy to report, Barcelona proved that the concept of the Olympic Games was still vibrant and ongoing through the imaginative provision of a choice of bags.

Every major championship bag contains a quantity of small, shiny items - including a number of lapel badges bearing the name or symbol of the event. These "pins", as they are known, take on an unavoidable significance for the duration of one's stay. It works like this.

Girl at serving hatch, smiling hopefully: "Have you got any pins?" You: "I'm sorry. I gave away my last one this morning." Girl starts to look all wistful, but gamely serves you with your food, anyway, her day spoiled. You feel guilty.

The variant goes as follows: Girl at serving hatch, smiling hopefully: "Have you got any pins?" You: "I think I have got one somewhere. Hang on a sec. There you go." Girl accepts badge with a dazzling smile and fixes it into the glinting array already established on the lapel of her Games volunteer overall.

She then smiles over with a look of quiet triumph to her mate alongside. Who then asks you, smiling hopefully: "Have you got any pins?" And you say, "I'm sorry. That was my last one." Another quiet triumph. And the second girl looks all wistful and gamely carries on serving food, her day spoiled. You feel guilty.

Basic rule of life for championships: pins are good, but don't run out. Pins good, bags good, coins not good.

Thinking about it, though, a coin was the best gift I ever had while working. Jack Walker, who bought a controlling interest in Blackburn Rovers in 1990, has another team whose fortunes he underwrites - First Tower United, who play near his tax-haven home on the island of Jersey.

Walker is a man who habitually shuns publicity, but on Jersey itself he is known by a different name - locals call him Johnny Walker - and his attitude to enquiries is similarly altered.

After expressing all the frustration of the one-eyed fan as the team closest to his heart struggled to a goalless draw in an FA Vase tie, he waxed expansive in the little room where club officials and their counterparts from Paulton Rovers were served with drinks.

It seemed strange to hear a man who had recently sold his family sheet- metal company for pounds 360m remarking ruefully on the cost of transporting First Tower across to Devon for the replay. "That's another two grand up the spout," he said.

Afterwards, I was phoning from the lobby for a taxi to take me to the airport - I was being transported by Jersey European Airways (owner: Jack Walker) - when Tower's benefactor came out to wish me a courteous farewell.

As I made my way to the ground entrance, I heard my name called out and turned back to see the multi-millionaire holding something up between his forefinger and thumb. "You don't want to leave this," he said. It was a 20p piece.

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