Chris Hewett: Cavendish blows it and empty seats galore but nobody is to blame...
Critic Without a Ticket: Liggett could have covered the race blindfold and still made more sense of it than Porter and company
Three days into the Games – make that five, if you happen to believe football has any meaningful place in these proceedings – there are questions in urgent need of answers. For instance, was the opening ceremony an exercise in "leftie multicultural crap", to quote the Tory MP Aidan Burley, or an "extravagant display of dim-brained left-wing history" concocted by a "miserable northern socialist", a view expressed with some force by the documentary maker Martin Durkin, who took particular exception to the glorification of "our shocking nationalised health system"?
We might also ask ourselves whether it is possible to feel sorry for a struggling sportsman as heavily bemedalled as Michael Phelps – a swimmer so weighed down by gold from previous Olympiads that he must have considered maximising his income by reinventing himself as a human mining concession – and whether Zara Phillips thought momentarily of her husband Mike Tindall and his after-hours antics at last year's Rugby World Cup when her horse, High Kingdom, slipped so effortlessly into a sideways walk during yesterday's dressage discipline in Greenwich Park. Top performers find their inspiration where they can.
Perhaps most pressingly of all, we should wonder whether anyone accepts blame for anything any more. Unfilled rows of corporate seats at events across the spectrum? "Not our fault," say the big business concerns, arguing that they did their bit in providing access to Joseph and Josephine Public by offering tickets as competition prizes but, this being London rather than Beijing, could not force the lucky winners to attend. Mark Cavendish's failure to make good on the countrywide assumption that he would win the men's road race by smithereening his rivals down the Mall? "Not my fault," he pronounced, condemning those rival teams who were "happy not to win as long as we didn't win". And as far as the BBC's cycling broadcasters were concerned, deflecting criticism was the principal task of the weekend.
The coverage of the Cavendish race was, undeniably, an unholy mess, to the extent that the enthusiasts watching live from some hillside in the sticks had a better idea of the overall shape of the contest than those watching on television – the barely imaginable, triumphantly achieved. With a splash of alphabet soup, the BBC pointed the finger at the OBS (the Olympic Broadcasting Services, based in Madrid and in overall charge of production, including the provision of pictures). When it came to basic information concerning which riders were where and how far they were behind, or in front of, everyone else, the corporation claimed it was as much in the dark as the viewing public.
Which may have been the case. But was it really the fault of OBS that the principal commentators, Hugh Porter and Chris Boardman, were unable to read the number on a rider's back, match it to the digits on the official start list, and then conclude this fiendishly difficult process by telling the licence-payer who the hell he might be? Heaven knows, dear old Phil Liggett has been guilty of the odd misidentification over the eternity he has spent calling the Tour de France for a range of commercial broadcasting concerns – about one a minute, on average – but he could have covered Saturday's race blindfold and still made more sense of it than Porter and company.
And so to the pool. While Phelps, whose gold medal haul of 14 from the Athens and Beijing Games, was slipping so far behind his American countryman Ryan Lochte in the 400m individual medley that he ended up off the podium, it was difficult not to think back to the 100m butterfly final in 2008, when Milorad Cavic of Croatia patently finished a glorious first yet ended up a bewildering second, owing to the fact that he did not press his touchpad quite hard enough: perhaps with 6.5lb of fingertip pressure, rather than the 6.6lb required to activate the technology. On that basis, Phelps had it coming to him. Some you win, some you lose – even if you're a physical freak, a sporting genius, or a happy combination of the two.
Before Phelps, there was Ian Thorpe of Australia: the "Thorpedo", as he was known back in the day. Now making himself known as a television pundit, he provided an amusing moment yesterday when, quizzed on the implications of swimmers being pressed into performing over distances outside their comfort zone, he offered the following thought: "It's like telling Usain Bolt that he can't run the 100m, but will have to run the 200m instead." Ummm.
Which leads us back, in a roundabout kind of way, to the opening ceremony, on which the world and his maiden aunt have been trying to have the last word since the early hours of Saturday morning. For what it's worth, this observer remains thankful for small mercies: had the cycling commentators been talking us through Danny Boyle's extravaganza – half-mad, often messy, occasionally magical – they wouldn't have recognised Bradley Wiggins, let alone anyone really obscure, like Paul McCartney or the Queen.
Another notion occurs: at the very heart of Boyle's celebration of Britishness was the tradition of dissent – political, social, cultural. We can dismiss Burley's buffoonery as the ravings of a pantomime parliamentarian, but a man such as Durkin, no stranger to taking potshots and sideswipes at orthodoxy, might have drawn breath before blowing his stack. There are different ways of looking at life. That's the thing about dissent.
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