Howard Jacobson: Cyclists are malevolent, while athletes are obsessed only with themselves

Paula Radcliffe is the most boring person in the country. When you ask her how she is, she tells you

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"My mind's not right." That's a line from a Robert Lowell poem I used to teach a hundred years ago. "I am tired. Everyone's tired of my turmoil" is another. Well, I'm not suffering the turmoil Robert Lowell did, but something must be wrong with me because I haven't been able to summon up an iota of interest in the Olympics, not in the opening ceremony (whether it was or was not fascistic: of course it was fascistic, it's fascistic to ask two people never mind two hundred thousand to do anything in unison), not in the closing ceremony (unless disgust with London's bottomlessly feeble song and celeb invitation to our place in 2012 can be called interest), not in the medals we won, not in beating Australia in the table, not in wondering when Peking became Beijing (or Bombay became Mumbai), not in trying to decide whether Boris looked a clown or perfectly expressed our shambolic individualism (forgetting about the fascism of the public schools that turn Borises out by the yard), not in any of it.

The one person who has said anything interesting about the Olympic Games in my hearing is my mother-in-law. "What's cycling for?" she asked me last week. "Dena, what's anything for?" was the best reply I could come up with. "What's swimming for?"

But she wasn't having any of my cheap nihilism. "Swimming is extremely useful," she said. "If you see someone drowning, for example. Or if you're drowning yourself."

We went through each Olympic event – javelin, triple jump, taekwondo, volleyball, skulling – ticking off their applicability to life outside an Olympic stadium. My position was that we could lose the lot and not be a jot worse off, unless we followed the logic of her drowning argument which would make competence with a javelin, say, useful in the event of someone sticking one in your hand, putting a gun to your temples, and saying "Throw or I pull the trigger". My mother-in-law, talking of guns, stuck to hers. There were many criteria of usefulness, and in her view sprint cycling in pointed hats and sticky shorts uniquely fulfilled none of them.

In fact, I agree with her about cycling and would go even further. Cycling is worse than futile, it is malevolent. Not a day goes by, unless I cower in my house and lock all the doors, when I am not put in danger by cyclists – whether it's cyclists riding the pavement, jumping the lights, weaving between pedestrians and traffic, overtaking on the inside, chaining their bikes where they are bound to cause obstruction, abusing and on occasions threatening me for pointing out any of these infractions to them, or just adding to our stock of vexations by their carbon-free complacency. For holier-than-thou smugness, only a mother breastfeeding in a public space beats a cyclist. Both have been licensed by our society to believe they are forces for beneficence – true children of nature in a naughty mechanistic world – whereas the one only makes the planet more dangerous and the other only contributes to its overpopulation.

This, I accept, is tangential to our Olympic achievements, except that I am unable to view them as achievements. Lottery money is to thank for them, we are told. So is that all we are applauding – the magic of cash? Should we not have had someone from the National Lottery on the winners' podium in that case – say, John Major who breathed it, as he breathed nothing else, except perhaps Edwina, into life – or the symbol of the Lottery itself, the cross-fingered smiling cartoon hand wiping tears of pride from his bulgy eyes? The swimmer Rebecca Adlington apparently can't wait to be on Top Gear and Celebrity Come Dancing now she's back home with her two gold medals. Were they just stepping stones then, mere nothing in themselves other than passports to the true glory of appearing on telly? Which, you could say, is the answer to all utilitarian objections. What use is swimming? It gets you to meet Jeremy Clarkson and Bruce Forsyth.

As for the beauty of physical contest, you either see it or you don't. Reading The Times during a break from the treadmill at my local gym last week – I speak, you see, as an athlete in my own right – I came across the following panegyric, worthy of a medal for hyperbole itself, upon the pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva: "A beautiful woman, a superb athlete, flying into the night sky, soaring like a human spirit, a perfect symbol of the hope we have for ourselves and for the world." Well, few people fly into the night sky quite like Simon Barnes, but how quivering on a stick, falling like a stricken giraffe into a sandpit, pulling your shorts out of your rectum and applauding yourself is a symbol of hope I don't understand, unless our highest aspiration for the human spirit is beating other people and shorts that stay out of our anuses.

I am not blind to the beauty of the body. I have watched film – because my wife made me watch film, wishing me to see what she had seen in the flesh – of Nureyev dancing with Fonteyn. I know sublimity when it's before me. But they shake my soul to its foundations not because they are athletes but because their bodies strive to express what their hearts feel and what their minds almost dare not think. Love, of course, will always make a difference. But so will any narrative when the emotions convey it to the body. In itself the body is nothing: it is what the body serves that makes it noble.

Here is the difference between the artist and the athlete – the artist endeavours to escape mere self while the athlete has no other subject. Who is the most boring person in the country? Paula Radcliffe. Why? Because when you ask her how she is she tells you – the life history of every twinge in every muscle, as though of all humanity's music she hears only the sound of her own tendons. Unfair to single her out; she simply does a little more of what they all do a little less. What tale of love or mutuality do any of them tell? I don't mean accidentally, off the course, I mean intrinsically, in the performance of their sport. None. They express the introversion of the ego, full stop. The Olympic Dream? Self-pleasure. Let's call them what they are – the Olympics of Onanism. And don't tell me my mind's not right when it's you that watches this disgusting stuff.

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