Adrian Chiles: All your life condensed into one unforgettable moment

In January I took a flight from Bucharest to Heathrow. At our departure gate I half-noticed a dozen or so pre-teen British girls running around. They were all wearing tracksuits. I didn't give them another thought until we were taxi-ing at Heathrow when the captain made the following announcement: "We're proud to have flown members of the British junior gymnastics team. They've been at a training camp in Romania. They're our hopefuls for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. We wish them luck." There was a smattering of applause and some appreciative sighs.

In January I took a flight from Bucharest to Heathrow. At our departure gate I half-noticed a dozen or so pre-teen British girls running around. They were all wearing tracksuits. I didn't give them another thought until we were taxi-ing at Heathrow when the captain made the following announcement: "We're proud to have flown members of the British junior gymnastics team. They've been at a training camp in Romania. They're our hopefuls for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. We wish them luck." There was a smattering of applause and some appreciative sighs.

I know more or less nothing about gymnastics but I'd guess that maybe two of those girls will make it to Beijing. One of them you might see on the box as she achieves a credible, but unnoticed, 17th place. You won't give her a second thought. Yet for that girl the journey to Beijing probably began several years before she got on that flight.

She'll get there; she'll do her best; she won't win. Watching at home we'll listen to the commentators say how far ahead the Russians/Chinese/Americans are, and we'll grope around our multi-channel interactive televisions to find another competition to watch.

That girl will have dedicated around half her short life preparing for this incredible experience in a far off country of which she can only know little. All so she can skip momentarily onto our sporting radar, then vanish again. The cruel juxtaposition of her amazing commitment and our indifference gives me a dull ache of admiration for her.

With the more high-profile figures it's slightly different in that we're at least aware of what Kelly Holmes, Matthew Pinsent and Paula Radcliffe have gone through to get where they are. But, like our unknown gymnast of the future, the mind-boggling thing is how their whole lives are focused on one day, one race, one moment.

And it's noticeable how such is the emotional magnitude of what they put themselves through that they're at a loss to explain their states of mind: Kelly Holmes' bewilderment at the finish; Paula Radcliffe's bafflement at what happened to her, and Matthew Pinsent's inability to explain why he couldn't sleep for days after his race. "Why?" asked the BBC's Garry Richardson. "Are you still going over the race in your mind?"

"No," said Pinsent, quite lost in wonder, "I just don't know."

Try to put yourself in their shoes, or his boat for that matter. Years of your life devoted to preparing for just one day.

As a moderately successful broadcaster I try to think of something in my own career analogous to what they go through. But there's nothing, no single, vital Match of the Day programme planned for a certain day in 2007 which will be absolutely critical to my career - a programme which done well will mark me down as a broadcasting legend, or done badly will scratch my name in history as a loser, an also-ran, a choker.

What about you? Let's say you're an accountant. Are you building up to filing a particularly vital P11d in the 2005-6 financial year? Will you have just one chance to do it? Will half the world be hanging on every stroke of your pencil? Surgeons, are you working solely towards, say, a particular appendectomy in August 2006? Of course not. Look as hard as you like in your own life and you'll find no single, massive, endlessly planned-for moment to compare to the blinding significance of an Olympian's hour in the sun.

That's why I love the Olympics so much. Because more or less any time of day or night for these last two weeks we've been able to switch the telly on and watch someone experiencing the moment of their lives. Someone achieving a lifelong dream - and dozens of others at that moment realising they will never achieve the goal they've set themselves. If you like watching people indescribably happy there's nothing better. On the other hand, if schadenfreude is more your bag there's been plenty for you too.

I should explain that I've been watching from home while my wife, Jane Garvey, is out in Athens with Radio 5 Live. There are plenty of male sports fans of a certain age who might see this as a most unsatisfactory state of affairs. The wife watching sport while the bloke looks after the kids? Disgraceful situation, mate. Don't know what the world's coming to. You want to get that sorted.

Now I'm not like that, but I will admit to the odd unreconstructed thought as I try to change a nappy, read Thomas the Tank Engine and get to grips with the canoeing all at the same time. But it's been instructive talking about the Olympics with our four-year-old daughter. In our discussions she's adopted the same tone I use when I come across her engaged in a particularly noisy, messy or dangerous activity - the old: "What are you doing?"

"Daddy, what is that man doing?"

"He's throwing a discus."

"What's a discus?"

"It's like a plate."

"Why is he throwing it?"

"To see who can get it the furthest."

"But why?"

And there's no answer to that, any more than she'll have a plausible explanation for me next time I ask her why she's in the back garden mixing up a sludge of mud, stones and orange juice in her bicycle helmet.

There's hope for the future, though: she likes it "when the lady swings about on the big bar and the little bar". So that's it. The road to 2016 starts here. Anybody got any idea how you get your kids into this asymmetric bars caper? I think I'll just erect them in the back garden and hope for the best. Do me a favour though, if she does eventually finish up in 29th place in an Olympics somewhere, don't ask what the point of it all was or I'll be round your house with a javelin to explain.

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