I am going for an Olympic gold medal - in apathy

'Why do I look forward to the Olympics? The certainty that there is nothing on TV for weeks'
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The Independent Online

Hurrah for the Olympics! I've been waiting and waiting all summer for it, and at last it begins.

Hurrah for the Olympics! I've been waiting and waiting all summer for it, and at last it begins.

Four, or possibly five weeks of people jumping up and down and running very fast for a short time, or sometimes very slowly for a very long time. Hour upon hour of people throwing things, or hitting other things, or doing stuff in the water. Or even odder things, hanging from bars and flinging themselves about and sticking their bums in the air and being given marks for it.

For all I know, at some point in the next month we may be watching some startlingly fit Kazakhs hitting each other over the head with rolled-up newspapers while the man from the BBC says, "And that was a personal best for Pflut, the 17-year-old from Vrnt."

Hour upon hour of television coverage, throughout the day and the night, for weeks on end, beamed directly from Australia, or possibly New Zealand. I can't remember, but I can't wait.

The prospect of actually watching any of this stuff is too grim for words, of course. So I won't. That places me in a minority - probably about 85 per cent of the population, at a rough guess - whose interest in who wins or who loses any given sport is somewhere between "very little" and "none at all". The whole thing is shrouded in the most extraordinary mystery for me.

What sports are there in the Olympics? Is there a gold medal in cricket, ballroom dancing or conceptual art? Who could possibly tell the difference between a mark of 5.87 and one of 5.86 in one of those poofs' football sports like ice-dancing and synchronised swimming, or think there was anything authoritative about the judgement? Does anyone, in the end, win the Olympics? I have no idea at all.

The odd thing is that everyone is assumed to be utterly fascinated by sport in all its manifestations. I expect I'm fairly typical in having a mild interest in one or two - I quite enjoy the Tour de France and Wimbledon, and cheerfully watch men's gymnastics in a spirit of sordid lechery. But I wouldn't exactly stay in to watch any of them.

I don't think that's atypical. For the vast majority of television sports, it's hard to see a public that consists of anything other than a small fanatical core of followers, surrounded by mild interest shading into apathy. Nevertheless, television devotes hours to individual sports, however minuscule their apparent appeal. What channel gets to show what sport is a matter not only of national interest, but quite often of government concern.

It's fair to ask why. Quite a lot of sport that hogs the airwaves has little public following and offers not much to look at.

I wish someone would explain television golf to me; it's undoubtedly enjoyable to play, but most of it on television consists of a camera flailing wildly about the sky, pretending to follow an entirely invisible ball. And yet this is obviously something of wide public interest in the way that, say, events in the arts, in business or in industry are assumed to be too marginal to be worth covering in detail.

If you proposed to a television executive, for instance, that they might like to broadcast Bayreuth's new production of The Ring of the Nibelung in total, they would think you had gone mad. But that truly is an event, and can anyone suppose that the number of people interested in Wagner in this country is less than the number gripped by hours and hours of crown-green bowling?

The primacy of sport in this country is overwhelming; art, to a very large extent, only gets on the telly when it is made to look like a snooker championship, and serious artists, writers and musicians are forced to compete for a spurious gold medal. Half an hour of Alfred Brendel playing a Beethoven piano sonata? I don't think so. Young Musician of the Year? Well, maybe. The badminton world cup? Would 20 hours be enough?

So why am I looking forward to the Olympics so much? Well, quite simple. I like the certainty that there is nothing on the telly. For four whole weeks, like the rest of the nation, to be able to switch off your television set and go and do something more interesting instead. And not to have the sense, either, that you are missing anything which anybody else is that interested in.

There's nothing nicer than knowing for certain, in the wake of Big Brother, that when you go out for dinner you are not going to be bored by anyone saying, "Did you see that programme on the telly last night?" No one is going to start talking about how well our boys are doing in the rifle-shooting, or the hockey, or the yachting, for one simple reason. In the vast majority of sports, we're not that interested.

The great mystery is why television executives give in so readily, as if there were no argument to be had.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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