In troubled times we can take comfort from our place in the Olympic tradition
Saturday 09 July 2005
As even those of us who love it are aware, nothing makes sport look more trivial than when words routinely used to describe the one-sidedness of a sporting encounter - murder, slaughter, havoc, destruction, even carnage - are given a horribly literal context just a few miles from Lord's cricket ground and Highbury stadium.
Of course, it didn't take Thursday's bombings to show me that the exploits of flannelled fools and muddied oafs are unimportant in the great scheme of things, yet sport has exercised my tear ducts in the past, and it will do so again in the future. I can sit stony-faced through Terms of Endearment or any cinematic weepie (except, obviously, the bit in The Sound of Music when Christopher Plummer spontaneously joins his children's rendition of "Edelweiss"). But show me Pat Cash winning Wimbledon and clambering over the crowd to embrace his old dad, or a stricken Derek Redmond being helped around the running track by his old dad, or Matthew Pinsent's big strong jaw crumpling at the end of the coxless fours, or Kelly Holmes' wildest dreams coming true, or Sam Torrance holing the putt that won the Ryder Cup for Europe, or a faltering Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and I'm a basket case.
It's amazing how many of these emotional spectacles have been delivered by the Olympic Games. I've never thought of myself as an Olympic junkie: the sports that truly excite me - such as football, cricket, tennis, golf, horse racing and rugby - are either not Olympic events or do not look to the Olympics for their blue riband moments. And I really didn't think I was tremendously bothered whether or not London won the 2012 bid. Yes, I hoped it would, but wouldn't have been overly disappointed if it hadn't.
Yet when the time came for Jacques Rogge to make his announcement, I found to my surprise that I cared very much. And when the word "London" escaped his hitherto unreadable lips, a big fat tear set off from my right eye and accelerated towards my chin, from where it plopped on to my knee; a lachrymose version of the modern pentathlon.
Nobody knew then, of course, apart from a few terrorists bent on mass murder, that tears of pain and distress would follow quite so quickly. I don't suppose any city has experienced quite so much elation and quite so much heartache inside less than 24 hours, its citizens so eagerly looking forward to the best of which humankind is capable before being forced to contemplate the worst.
When Homer wrote 3,000 years or so ago that "there is no greater glory for a man so long as he lives than that which he achieves by his own hands and feet," he was thinking about deeds of sport, not slaughter.
But there are leader writers better skilled than I at conveying such sentiments. Let this column accentuate the positive, and look forward with glee rather than gloom to 2012, when London, no matter how many terrorist outrages it has suffered, will host an Olympic Games for the third time in just over 100 years.
The city already has an immortal place in Olympic heritage. The distance of the marathon was made official at the London Games of 1908, and marathon runners of republican leanings should be aware that it was fixed at 42.195km to represent the precise distance to the finishing line at White City from the terrace of Windsor Castle.
I learnt that at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne a couple of months ago, along with the fact that the Italian winner of the 1908 marathon, Dorando Pietri, was disqualified for receiving medical assistance during the race. But it was an honourable disqualification, unlike that suffered by Fred Lorz in St Louis four years earlier, when it was found that the American had covered part of the course in whatever passed in 1904 for a lorry. To the delight of the crowd, Queen Alexandra gave Pietri a gold cup anyway, and it is from that moment that the popularity of the modern marathon dates.
It is comforting, in these troubled, uncertain times, to think that the London Olympics of 2012, too, will be history one day, carefully and affectionately chronicled in Lausanne.
It is a splendid museum, and I heartily recommend a visit, if only to gaze in wonder upon the bra worn by Sunni Hughes, of Australia, who flashed it after scoring a goal during a women's football match against Brazil during the Sydney Games five years ago.
The note beside this truly historic exhibit read: "Cette brassière a connu la notoriété lorsque la joueuse dans un geste de joie a soulèvé son maillot..."
The English translation underneath was more prosaic. "The player gleefully lifted her singlet," it said.
Things work much better in French sometimes, if not, in the opinion of the International Olympic Committee, the 2012 Olympic Games.
By mid-morning on Thursday, however, it was no longer appropriate to gloat.
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