Is it uplifting? Is it depressing? Who even knows anymore? The sight of Adam Peaty winning gold and punching the water in celebration is most certainly uplifting. But the same sight from another angle, showing arguably Great Britain’s finest ever sportsman living his moment of triumph down at the floor of a valley of empty seats, is more than a little bit depressing. Watching his proud but camera-shy mum and dad interviewed on BBC Breakfast is uplifting. But seeing them in their own back garden, and not in Tokyo with their superhuman son, is somewhat depressing.
Isn’t it? Maybe it’s not. Maybe the most depressing aspect is how normal it all feels. That this is just the way we do things now. There is a small amount of debate occurring as to whether the games should have gone ahead at all. Peaty himself has described them as “weird” and “not like an Olympics”. Which they’re most certainly not. But nor have weddings and funerals and the births of babies. Life has to go on.
It is impossible to say what an Olympics actually feels like. For most people, an Olympics is a series of joyful, life affirming moments that come out of a television screen. Were the Olympics not to go ahead, the void might easily have been filled by some heartwarming celebrity anecdotes on The Graham Norton Show.
For elite competitors, they are the culmination of years of training, carefully and deliberately built toward them. There have already been a lot of upsets in Tokyo. Team GB’s Jade Jones was favourite to win gold in taekwondo. She lost early on, and said she had failed to adapt to the strange atmosphere of the empty arena. Others, who might have found the roaring Olympic crowd intimidating, have used the training match atmosphere to their advantage.
Jones might have preferred the Olympics to be delayed by a further year, and have it occur in full-throated fashion. But in such circumstances, many other athletes might not have been able to compete at all. There is also precious little guarantee that delay would achieve anything. In Indonesia, which is not a million miles from Tokyo, hundreds of children, many of them under five years of age, now appear to be dying every week from Covid. The UK may have had a successful vaccine rollout, but globally, the pandemic is almost certainly still nearer to its beginning than its end.
The pictures from Tokyo speak directly to what was once the crucial question in elite sport. Does it exist principally for the benefit of fans, or athletes? This is also the most fundamental difference between the British or European sport and American sporting experience. American sport is unashamedly an entertainment product put on for paying customers. It is why baseball games break in the seventh innings for a communal singalong, and fans are kept relentlessly entertained by the kiss cam and the T-shirt gun.
In this country, sport tends to be an elite level competition between elite level players, which the fans should consider themselves lucky to be able to witness. It is not well remembered, for example, that Lord’s was originally conceived and built as a series of large fences around Dorset Square in Marylebone, to prevent the plebs from watching the aristocrats play cricket. To keep fans out, in other words, not in.
Today, and for at least a decade or so, the equation is not so simple. Sport is not about the fan, or the player, but about the money. And the money comes from the television. Television networks have paid billions and billions of dollars for pictures of the Olympic Games. They have sold the adverts off the back of them. Those pictures must now be provided. Too much money has been spent for any other outcome to be possible. It is for the same reason that a full Premier League season had to be played out behind closed doors. And if those pictures are slightly substandard, well, they will have to do. Sport doesn’t have to be like this, of course, but it is now and there’s no going back.
And are they even substandard? The Australian swimming coach Dean Boxall going wild at Ariarne Titmus’s victory in the 400 metre freestyle is arguably as glorious as any Olympic image of the last 20 years. As a direct consequence, somebody somewhere is busily removing millions of iterations of it from social media over broadcast copyright infringement, a job the social media companies find incredibly easy when a big television network tells them to, but continue to struggle when it comes to doing the same with, say, racist abuse.
Covid only draws into higher contrast the absurd and obscene moral and economic currents that meet at the Olympic Games, pandemic or not. It is worth remembering, for the next two weeks, that most of our not yet anointed Olympic heroes lead normal, fairly low-paid lives.
Tom Pidcock won the cross-country mountain biking this morning. He considers himself exceptionally lucky just to be able to fulfil his extraordinary talent for the thing he loves. Most Olympic athletes, from most developed countries, do so with the backing of taxpayers. The obscene infrastructure they require is also funded by the taxpayers of the host nation, a role taxpayers around the world are becoming increasingly reluctant to fulfil.
But he is, nevertheless, a conscripted billboard for the mega corporations that sponsor the Olympics, and he will make far less money from his own talent than some TV executive selling adverts off the back of it will.
The empty stadiums, a very important layer of joy stripped out, just make all that clearer to see. But it doesn’t, ultimately, change much. There is still plenty to enjoy. There will still be incredible, unforgettable moments, and there will still be a new cast of first rate characters added to this country’s still booming Olympic love affair.
The Olympics likes to drown itself in guff. For decades, it has been a tradition that the head of each national team must sign an “Olympic Truce Wall” in the athletes village, pledging to uphold a ceasefire from international conflict for the duration of the games. Russia signed it in 2008, a couple of days before Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia during the Beijing opening ceremony. Scarcely a speech is made at an opening or closing ceremony without talk of the world “coming together” in “a spirit of peace”.
It’s all cloying but it is also somewhat true. The world would be a far lesser place without its sporting mega events, and while this one is diminished by Covid, there is a chance its glorious pictures will live on, as a final memento to a truly dismal chapter of human life, before things began to get better.
Pandemics have a habit of being forgotten by history, principally because nobody ever does very much during them, other than quietly die. There is every chance that this one will be no different. But sporting triumphs are not so easily forgotten, principally because the pictures of them are so very unforgettable.
It is distinctly possible that Covid will be culturally immortalised via the disposable mask in Dean Boxall’s hand as he roars into the air and dry humps the railings at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. That it tried to stop us but it couldn’t. And that is most certainly not depressing. It’s as uplifting as it gets.
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