A tough time on the sofa

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The Independent Online
LIKE any self-respecting couch potato, I have been training hard for the Olympics for many months now. Long hard 100-metre runs up to the off-licence, marathon cushion-plumping sessions and daily digit exercises for swift-reflex remote-control manipulation have been part of my regimen since early February. And now, at last, everything is ready. The fridge is full. The answering machine is on, to screen out those irritating 'Why haven't you done any work?' calls. As the first week of competition proper starts, I'm at my physical and mental peak, ready for anything Des Lynam can throw at me.

Of course, much has been spoken of the terrible hardships the athletes have to go through to get to Barcelona: years of poverty, neglect and 73-mile runs before breakfast, with nothing to show for it afterwards other than a few massive sponsorship deals and a safe seat in Parliament. And, more recently, much has also been spoken of the appalling workload of the doughty television crews and presenters who will be bringing this most thrilling of sporting spectacles to an eager public.

Little sympathy, though, is spared for the poor viewer, who must sit through 246 hours of coverage, quite a lot of it presented by Steve Rider, in the desperate hope that something interesting might happen. These viewers are no dilettantes: we're fit and fearless, bursting with energy, and we spit in the eye of recorded highlights. We want to watch the lot - with all the longueurs and all the cuts back to the studio for chats with David Moorcroft. We're Olympics junkies, and we'll watch anything. Yes, anything. Even small-bore shooting.

And that is the great secret of the Olympics. For two weeks every four years, hundreds of millions of people around the world pretend to themselves and to each other that some of the dullest sports ever invented are actually worth watching. We don't care if the whole thing is run by strange- looking characters with dodgy friends and even dodgier war records, or if silly new sports are introduced to appease soft-drink manufacturers and Basque terrorists. We don't even care if everything stops every 10 minutes for a commercial break on American television. We're just proud to represent our country in the greatest sporting event the world has ever known - and we've got the crisps, lagers and packets of oven chips to prove it.

There's only one problem, and that's the allegation - totally unfounded, of course - that some of us viewers are no longer what might be described as 'amateur'. Some of us, it is said, do not have jobs to go to - we just sit at home and watch television all day. If it wasn't for the Olympics, we would only be watching something else - the Test match, the 2.15 from Redcar, even, on a bad day, Going for Gold. We have, it is said, turned professional.

And it's true, there are distinct elements of professionalism creeping into the game. Some argue that the amateur spirit is a pathetic relic of a past age, and has no place in these competitive times. And indeed, many of us have watched so much of the Tour de France that we very nearly understand the various scoring systems. But the big question is, do we receive payment for our sterling efforts?

Well, the old Soviet Union is rumoured to have kept thousands upon thousands of highly trained television viewers on the payroll purely to watch the country's shot- putters and hammer-throwers come first, second and third every four years. In Britain, sadly, the story is very different. Sponsorship is almost impossible to come by, and only the very top viewers can negotiate appearance money, which they have to place in special trusts, known as 'their pockets'. My own sponsors, Salim's Video Store and Late Night Shopping Emporium up the road, have been a little short with the readies so far, but they have at least guaranteed me an unending supply of cakes, chocolates and sweetmeats over the next fortnight - provided I pay for them myself, of course.

But, as Juan Antonio Samaranch might say, who cares about money? What really counts in the sport-watching game are guts, stamina, and the sheer will to watch. I don't know about you, but I'm ready. Roll on, Tony Gubba.