Allan Massie: Some sports shouldn’t be in Olympics, but every medal must be savoured
LAST week, I wrote about how changed conditions, equipment, training methods, etc should be taken into account – as far as this is possible – when comparing today’s sportsmen and sportswomen with their predecessors.
How fast, I wondered, would Usain Bolt run on a cinder track? That was before I had watched one of these fascinating Olympic Memories programmes that featured Harold Abrahams’ 100 metres triumph in Paris in what we now think of as the Chariots of Fire Olympics, way back in 1924. It would be an exaggeration to say that Abrahams was running on what looked like a cart-track, but the surface was more like that of a country lane than that on which “the fastest man in the world” will be doing his stuff in London.
It’s been fun watching these programmes, not only because of the memories they summon up, but also because of the questions they invite. One has had an opportunity to compare two of the greatest of all Olympic athletes, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. In Atlanta 1984, Lewis matched Owens’ record of four gold medals in the Berlin Olympics. He went on to win five more, but Owens of course never had the opportunity to compete in the Games again, those scheduled for 1940 being – understandably – cancelled. It was for long believed that the German public resented Owens, whose performance made nonsense of Nazi theories of racial superiority, and that Hitler walked out in dudgeon rather than acknowledge the Black American’s prowess. There is no substance in either story. Owens was well received in Berlin and the man who did snub him – after the Games – was the American President, Franklin D Roosevelt. Back home, the star of the Olympics was soon reminded that he was a second-class citizen. Carl Lewis wasn’t as badly treated, but he wasn’t exactly an all-American hero in 1984. He was regarded as preening and uppity. Rumours were spread that he was gay and this – which he denied – cost him endorsements. “It doesn’t matter what Carl Lewis’s sexuality is,” a fellow Olympian, the high jumper, Dwight Stone said, “Madison Avenue perceives him as homosexual.” “If you’re a male athlete, I think the American public wants you to look macho,” said a Nike representative, justifying his company’s decision to drop Lewis. Well, the world, even of sport, has moved on since then.
What is called Team GB – itself adman’s terminology – talks happily of the number of medals we expect to win. Few are likely to be in the athletics events in which we once shone, especially the men’s middle-distance ones. Time was when we looked forward eagerly to these, and almost everyone of a certain age can remember the duels between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe in Moscow in 1980, when each won the race for which the other was favourite. The 1500 metres was said to have attracted a TV audience of 20 million. Sometimes, however, failure can have a happy result. Roger Bannister was tipped to win the 1500 metres in Helsinki in 1952. Had he done so, he would have retired to pursue his career in medicine. He finished fourth and continued to run. Losing in the Olympics therefore enabled him to be the first man to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. Once that barrier, which was psychological rather than physical, was breached, the record tumbled quickly over the next few years. The 100 metres makes its winner the fastest man in the world, but, for me, the 1500 metres remains the race of races. Now most of our medals are likely to be in what are commonly thought of as minority sports, like rowing, cycling, swimming and diving etc. If they are “minority ones”, this is only because they get less attention from the media in non-Olympic years than they deserve. Football, at which we in Scotland are no longer any good, gets more coverage than all other sports put together – including those in which we produce champions. Very rum.
The Olympics have swollen, and there are probably sports which shouldn’t be included. Football indeed is one of them, tennis another. Both fail what should perhaps be the test to determine whether they are properly Olympic sports. It’s quite a simple test: is winning an Olympic gold the greatest achievement possible in that particular sport? The answer in these sports and perhaps some other ones is evidently “no”. In football the World Cup is much more important than the Olympics; in tennis winning Wimbledon or another of the slam tournaments likewise. Watching “Team GB” play Senegal on Thursday night (and draw a game they deserved to lose) made the point. Of course we’ll be delighted if Andy Murray wins an Olympic gold, but it will mean less than beating Roger Federer on the same courts earlier this month would have done, and no tennis fan will ever pretend otherwise.
Enough of such cavilling. The Olympics are indeed the greatest sporting show on earth, and for most of the competitors the greatest experience of their sporting career. For a gratifying number of them indeed, Baron de Coubertin’s words still ring true: it’s taking part that matters. As for us, we’ll certainly do better than we did in Helsinki in 1952, when, as the headlines told us, our only winner was a horse. Three horses actually, and their riders, in the team show-jumping, but the headline was too good to be spoiled by such nit-picking accuracy.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West