Tim Walker: 'All you get of the grand sporting narrative at the Olympics is the epilogue'
The Couch Surfer: 'None of the world's most troublesome players – terrorists, oil barons, bankers – has a team'
Monday 22 February 2010
Telling people you find the Olympics tedious is like confessing that you ate their last slice of pizza, or ran over their dog: they take it very personally. But anyway, I find the Olympics tedious.
I'm not discriminating against the Winter Games, which often feature events far more spectacular than those of their summer-based counterpart. And even though I live next door, so far I'm not especially bothered about the economic sinkhole that is London 2012, nor the transport disruption it's expected to cause. A lot of people will have a fabulous time, and the Tube will be left in top nick when they all go home.
What irks me is the expectation that I should keep my telly tuned to the thing all day, and be gripped vice-like by every single event, however obscure. What you get from most big sporting spectacles – The Champions League, The Ashes, The Six Nations, Wimbledon – is a narrative arc. Triumph, despair, redemption. David and Goliath. The tale of a team, a player; their journey to this final or that. I can get excited about a story. My support for a specific football team (which shall remain nameless) is half-hearted at best, but I'm spellbound by the sweep of a full season's competition.
At the Olympics, however, all you get to see of those grand narratives is the final chapter, which often lasts a little less than 30 seconds: "Man jumps high in the air. Crowd cheers. The end." That's not even a chapter, it's an epilogue. How can I get emotionally attached to the Titanic when it's already underwater? Which of these guys is actually called Spartacus, and why should I care?
The Olympics also used to be a place where the world's geopolitical rivals met and competed honourably without recourse to violence. At the 1980 Winter Games, a ragtag team of American amateur and college players defeated the Soviet ice hockey team – then considered the best in the world – in a match remembered as the "Miracle on Ice". Now that's a story.
One Day in September, Kevin Macdonald's magnificent documentary about the murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, emphasises the nobility of one of the victims, fencing coach Andre Spitzer, who had previously taken great pains to introduce himself to the Lebanese team. In that particular case, politics intruded on the Games in tragic fashion. But even a violence-free Olympics in the Cold War era had the glamour of great powers confronting one another. These days, none of the world stage's most troublesome players – terrorists, oil barons, bankers – has a team in contention.
And yes, of course, I appreciate that the Olympics are the pinnacle of many great athletes' careers. Good luck to them all. I am in awe of their passion, their skill and their commitment. I am aware that stumbling across highlights coverage from the final few yards of the cross-country skiing heats at some ungodly hour of the morning is, for some viewers, a blissful bit of niche sporting television. There are even moments of success or failure so glorious that they are compelling without context – snowboarding gold-medallist Shaun White's "double McTwist 1260" on the half-pipe, say, or a montage of figure skating falls – but now that I can watch those on YouTube, my only reason for sitting through hours of the boring guff in between has gone.
Last year I watched Spiritualized play their classic album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space at the Royal Festival Hall. Now Primal Scream have announced they're going to mark the 20th anniversary of Screamadelica by performing it live and in full at London's Olympia in October. The Pixies recently toured their 1989 masterpiece Doolittle. Lou Reed, Brian Wilson and Echo & the Bunnymen have all done the same. Sparks, just to up the ante, played every one of their albums in full over 20 consecutive gigs.
Now that the single (or, at least, the "track") is in the ascendant, and albums are suffering spiralling sales, could this be the future for the LP: to be consumed only as live performance, like a classical symphony? The album as image-defining physical artefact feels like the product of a bygone age. Which is one reason (there are others) why none of last week's best album nominees from the Brits – Kasabian, Paolo Nutini et al – can claim to have produced an LP whose track-listing, artwork, and sales figures have impacted on the cultural consciousness like Screamadelica did.
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