A question of sport

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By the time you read this the Olympics will be over for another four years. Already we will have forgotten what an ippon is – I love the way we are all experts on minority sports for a few weeks during the Olympics. For example, you might find yourself watching the diving and saying “the only chance he has of getting the gold medal now is if he performs a double backwards somersault with pike” An ippon by the way is a full point in Judo, as opposed to a waza-ari which is almost an ippon. I'm glad we cleared that up then. I also think I can do better than the competitors that fail in an event. I found myself shouting “row faster” at the TV as the British team won silver in the Men's Eights rowing event. I have never rowed and was lying in bed at 11:30 on a Sunday morning feeling slightly hung-over!

So whilst we become experts, some of the British team it would appear, do not. Take for example the tale of Frankie Gavin, Britain's best pre-games boxing gold medal prospect. Frankie however
failed to achieve his dream and the reason for his failure; bad refereeing? A shock knock-out punch? A badly cut eye maybe? How about training hard for at least four years but then failing to make the 60kg target weight to enter the lightweight class? Gavin is not your usual amateur practising in a draughty village hall; in 2007 he became English boxing's first ever amateur World Champion. In reality, Gavin was trying to drop down below his natural fighting weight (and employing Ricky Hatton's slimming guru to achieve this) but for me it typifies British sport and our dearth of success at world level. So many times we clutch defeat from the jaws of victory with the next great British hope standing there like a bewildered rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming car.

The same cannot be said of Spain, which at the moment is riding high in the sporting world. A TV show on TVE1 asked “are we the best sporting nation in the world”? This was after Nadal had won at Wimbledon and Sastre won the Tour de France. This on top of Spain's convincing win at

the Euro 2008 tournament makes a convincing argument.

However, Beijing 2008 has been a bit of a revelation. At the time of writing this, Team GB had already won more gold medals than the 9 they won at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And things are definitely changing with money invested into UK sport by the Lottery fund – this can be up to £8 million over a four year period for key Olympic sports – the change will be long-term rather than short-term, but should give us more medal hopes when the 2012 Olympics are held in London. What constitutes a key Olympic sport is not made clear, but I am certain it does not include beach volleyball or BMX bike riding. I think these recent additions to the Olympics (BMX?!) are ridiculous, but maybe if some other sports such as darts, or snooker were introduced we would have even more medal opportunities.

In Beijing, the British cycling team have been awesome; Jeremy Whittle, the Times cycling correspondent, said that the teams success was "a combination of money, the right people, the best equipment and just a very positive mentality” How many times have you heard that said about any British team? That said I am still convinced that winning does not sit comfortably with the British psyche. The boxer Frank Bruno will always be better-loved by the British public than the likes of Chris Eubank and Lloyd Honeyghan who were many times more successful than Bruno in terms of world titles. But times are definitely changing; one commentator explained that in the UK now potential medallists are picked up as young as 10 or 11. When they get to 14 years of age their coaches are asked “can this person win a medal” if the answer is “no” they are dropped and the search for another medal hope begins. Harsh, but I think realistic. I mean, we do not want another Eddie 'the Eagle' Edwards on our team do we? This ruthlessness will hopefully breed the same ruthlessness on the pitch/track etc. It is hard to imagine that John McEnroe when at the top if his game went onto a tennis court with any other thought in his head than winning. If only the same could be said about 'Tiger' Tim Henman. It must have been very tough for Tim playing at Wimbledon knowing the whole nation were willing him to be the first British male to win the tournament since Fred Perry in 1936, possibly a similar pressure that is the England football team trying to win their first trophy since the 1966 world cup. Indeed, a friend of mine commented that he actually enjoyed Euro 2008 more as he did not have to endure the stress of watching England getting knocked out prior to the final. Many people think we English talk about the 1966 World Cup final all the time because it is our sole success. This is not true; we just talk about it to annoy Scottish people.
similar pressure that is the England football team trying to win their first trophy since the 1966 world cup. Indeed, a friend of mine commented that he actually enjoyed Euro 2008 more as he did not have to endure the stress of watching England getting knocked out prior to the final. Many people think we English talk about the 1966 World Cup final all the time because it is our sole success. This is not true; we just talk about it to annoy Scottish people.

So whilst I really believe we can do even better in terms of sporting success in 2012, what really worries me is our opening ceremony; the Beijing opening ceremony was awe inspiring and at times I could not see how some of the effects were achieved. A giant scroll was unrolled on the field in the Birds Nest stadium which became the 'stage' for the performers. According to news reports there were 900 soldiers underneath the scroll to operate. The soldiers had to stay under the scroll for up to seven hours and had to wear nappies as they were not allowed toilet breaks. I am sure the same request in London would have resulted in a mass strike after the unions became involved. Other stories have emerged after the ceremony watched by 91,000 people in the stadium and an estimated worldwide TV audience of 2 billion; the little girl that was seen singing the Chinese national anthem was actually miming after it was decided by the producers that real singer was not cute enough. Also, the spectacular fireworks shown randomly were pre-recorded as it was very hazy on the day of the ceremony. These stories cannot detract from the 4 ½ hour extravaganza that I nearly missed as I said I thought it would be boring. Wrong!

Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou and Chinese choreographer Zhang Jigang directed the 15,000 performers who enacted major milestones in Chinese history and culture, such as the invention of the wooden printing block. On the scroll stage there were giant wooden blocks that undulated like waves, sprouted flowers and symbols only to open to reveal people inside, not some computer wizardry. So back to the London opening ceremony; me and my wife have racked our brains and the only thing we can come up with is Morris dancing. 4 ½ hours of that should make compelling viewing.

Andy Wilkes

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