Government take the gold for meddling

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The Independent Online
By a margin that even the wondrous Michael Johnson would be hard- pushed to match, the British Government are the runaway winners of the Olympic gall medal for a display of outstanding impertinence, managing in one swoop to insult the achievements of our successes, few as they may be, and to cast a deeper shadow over those who have met with failure and disappointment amid the steamy challenges of Atlanta.

In publicly summoning the British Olympic Association chef de mission, Dick Palmer, to report this week to "discuss" the meagreness of our medal tally, they have created the impression of an indignant employer demanding explanations from inefficient servants. Being a Welshman, Palmer will doubtless conduct himself as a gentleman and restrain the rudeness he would be entitled to express. And, being an astute gatherer of funds for those he represents, is likely to tap them for a tidy donation to help future Olympic teams.

But Palmer's ability to mix it with the politicians is not the point. If there are culprits behind our inability to collect medals at a similar rate to comparable countries, they are less likely to be found sweating their socks off in Georgia than in that old building with a large clock situated at the northern end of Westminster Bridge.

The cuteness of the inhabitants therein has rarely been better demonstrated than during the past two weeks. With a display of gun-jumping that Linford Christie might care to study, the Prime Minister anticipated our lack of twinkle in Atlanta by announcing the building of an academy of sport to produce Olympic heroes of the future. Would he have been so bold, we ask, if the lottery had not been in operation? He had the grace, at least, to acknowledge the past neglect of sport.

After inviting Palmer into what a former colleague used to call "the arse-kicking cubicle", the Minister for Sport Iain Sproat confessed to the Daily Mirror that there had been a "shameful decline" in government funding over the years and that elite athletes had not received as much help as other athletes around the world. They know the answers before they ask the questions.

If an Olympic team's success is an indication of the strength of their country's sporting structure, the standard of facilities, the financial support and the close personal interest of those charged with public well- being, our lot have been over-achieving in Atlanta. Certainly, few have the right to criticise those bearing the union flag out there, many of whom have paid a high price in money and effort to earn the right to be slagged off. They may not all deserve to hear the strains of a brass band when they alight from their returning flights this week but the sound of the national raspberry is even less appropriate.

It is difficult to establish who decides what is an acceptable level of accomplishment but, unless British necks have been festooned with medals overnight, it seems that the nation has been officially alerted not to be amused. Even those who usually draw comfort from Baron de Coubertin's famous exhortation, that the glory lies not in the winning but in the taking part, are tending to get touchy. The balm of the Olympic message begins to lose its soothing powers when you suffer from excessive glorification in the taking-part department.

But has our appreciation of Steven Redgrave's tremendous achievement of winning his fourth consecutive gold medal when partnering Matthew Pinsent in the coxless pairs waned already? Does Roger Black's splendid comeback to win a silver medal behind Michael Johnson in the 400 metres - the most forgiveable second place in athletics history - suddenly mean less? Is the courage of Kelly Holmes in ignoring a stress fracture of her leg to reach last night's 1500m final to be regarded as less than heroic?

The fact that medals have been so hard to come by should make us more appreciative of our successes. And there have been areas where our lack of success has been very puzzling and hardly calls for national gloom. Who do you blame for our poor showing in the equestrian events? The horses don't even know they're British.

Many will be delighted about the lack of patriotic frothing at the mouth because they believe it means that the BBC's appetite for the festival might be less enthusiastic in future. They shouldn't bank on it. No matter how many millions the corporation pay for the television rights, they turn the Olympics into a bargain. The amount they show means that it works out at only about 30p a minute.

And their commentators can get just as excited about a finish of multi-national flavour as they would if there was a Briton involved. After all, the Games are about the recognition of excellence no matter whence it comes.

Perhaps, instead of turning the gun on ourselves, we should lobby for the Olympics to be pared down to a more sensible and manageable size. But even to those watching in the early hours of the morning some of it has been sport at its most breathtaking. If the overall experiences of our team leads to more support for sport in our schools and to the wider creation of facilities for all, then something positive will have resulted.

And if the Government are looking for a legacy to be remembered by, perhaps they'll find it when snooker is admitted to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. It has long been made possible for countless young men to practise the game all day.

Outraged by the treatment Britain's silver medalist Ben Ainslie received in the Laser class of the Olympic sailing events on Thursday, one of our proud newspapers awarded a red card to the gold medal winner Robert Scheidt, of Brazil. Scheidt, they thundered, deliberately false-started in the final race and lured Ainslie into doing the same. They were both disqualified, thus denying Ainslie the chance of overtaking the Brazilian and taking the gold. "Scheidt by name, etc," they snarled.

Sadly, their knowledge of the murky waters is not vast. The angelic Ainslie would have done exactly the same - indeed that's how he got there. In the British Olympic trials last year, Ainslie led into the final race needing only to beat Hugh Styles to win. He sought Styles out and sailed slowly in front of him all the way around. They finished last and Ainslie went to Atlanta. Sea water has an amazingly corrosive effect on what the rest of us regard as sportsmanship.

We've long known what unpleasant changes can happen to an official when he is given a whistle. Now we've seen how much worse the transformation can be when you give him a gun. The Olympic starters on the trackside at Atlanta have shown how the old, simple Ready-Steady-Go ritual has been turned into a prolonged, almost sadistic, drama.

The feeling of control that comes from having the fastest athletes in the world at the mercy of your trigger finger must be intoxicating. After the command "Set" there have been agonisingly long waits before the starter reluctantly relinquished his power. No wonder there have been so many false starts.

There must be better ways. What about starting gates? You don't get false starts at Catford dogs.