THE MOST predictable of all the ‘legacies’ expected to accrue from London 2012 would begin to manifest itself even before the emblematic flame in the Olympic Arena’s great cauldron had been snuffed out.
It would take the form of a stampede among certain ’pundits’ to be the first to preach on the subject of how football (and one or two other, equally unlikely sports) could learn a great deal from the successful policies and methods that brought so much plunder to various branches of Team GB.
Foremost among the comparisons with Scotland’s national game would be cycling, presumably not least because, with eight gold medals, they managed to bag more swag than any other group.
Just as it would be impossible (to say nothing of scandalous) to belittle the extraordinary achievements of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and the rest of the wizards of the velodrome, however, it is folly to the point of air-headedness to promote the notion that the ball game could benefit from the practices of the wheelers.
In the course of this exercise in futility, much was made of the utterances of Dave Brailsford, the overlord of British cycling and clearly a man who (at least in the context of his own sport) should be taken very seriously. The Welshman explained that, in the matter of maintaining progress and remaining ahead of the competition, the British cyclists benefited greatly from ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’.
It is unquestionably a brilliantly concise phrase with which to affirm that, at the core of everything the cyclists do, either in preparation or on the track and on the road, there is the realisation that even the smallest of advances to be gained – from equipment design and function down to shaving fractions of seconds from performances in the saddle – will accumulate into a telling edge on the day that counts.
Unfortunately, it is also a concept and a practice that is, certainly where football is concerned, non-transferable. Indeed, it is a principle which perfectly defines the fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the great majority of Olympic – that is, individual – sports and the most popular team game on the planet.
In cycling, as in track and field, rowing, canoeing and many others, everything in training and in competition is quantifiable. In football, with its teams of diverse individuals of all physical types and their wide range of abilities, nothing is measurable. Of course, a would-be footballer may actually be quicker over, say, five yards than an Olympic-standard sprinter, but it is meaningless if he can’t play.
And nobody whose objective is to finish ahead of his or her rivals on a standard, unchanging course (whether straight, round bends or even across country) will ever be required to demonstrate the vision, movement, improvisation and execution that makes a Zidane, a Maradona, a Platini or a Pele an irresistible influence on a game that involves so many other disparate characters.
In addition to the innumerable, unquantifiable aspects of the footballer in relation to other athletes, of course, there is also the not insignificant detail that, while straining every muscle to establish supremacy, the cyclist does not have to concern himself with the certainty of having to body-swerve a mischief-making rival whose sole intention is to knock him off his bike.