Monday, August 06, 2012

The Meaning of Sport

Source: BBC

Saturday was probably the most exciting day of sport I can remember. Although the night, with its three GB athletics gold medal was uplifting and extraordinary in its own right it was only the culmination of a day of highs (mostly highs) and lows.

In the velodrome there had been the sight of the GB women's pursuit team, perfectly drilled riding for one another for their sixth consecutive world record. Such a relentless power applied with an economy of effort where only the legs seemed to be moving, was a wonder to watch. Afterwards at the medal ceremony the stadium was filled with noise as the whole crowd, led by Paul McCartney sang Hey Jude. It could have been a little bit cheesy but it wasn't. It was joyous. Community, celebration, connection between crowd and performer - everything was there.

Also there was a moment that showed something of the person within an athlete. Jo Rowsell took off her helmet to reveal a mostly bald head with a couple of tufts of hair. From the age of 10 she has suffered from alopecia and has had to grow into womanhood without one of the great signifiers of beauty (and to see what an important signifier hair is you only have to look  at the lustrous lock in any shampoo advert). It must have been  difficult but according to this article  cycling has helped build her confidence.  Wonderful - but it still takes a deal of courage to show the whole world your bald head and I am sure every alopecia sufferer will walk a little bit taller after having seen it.

That would have been enough for a normal day but there was much more. On the water there were two greatly contrasting rowing moments. One was an expression of joy and disbelief on the face of Katherine Copeland after she and Sophie Hosking had won their race. Wide eyed and opened mouthed she looked as if she could not believe it but in her expression she showed all the tumultuous emotion of sporting triumph and the reason people put themselves through so much. The other moment was the obverse - the pain of defeat.  Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase battled with the Danish crew and lost by the slimmest of margins to win silver rather than gold. They were so exhausted afterwards that they had almost to be lifted out of the boat and to give an interview to TV they had to prop each other up. They were distraught and the only thing they could think of saying was to apologise to everybody for letting them down. They had let nobody down. They had been heroic but because they did not meet their own target they felt the burden of the whole team upon their shoulders. (read Zac Purchase's account here).The interview went no further there was nothing anybody could say as everybody was moved and Steve Redgrave gently helped them away to a place of privacy where they could recover. If you ever wanted to see how people can invest every fibre of their being in a quest and what that means at the end, you only have to watch that clip. 

And so onto the evening in the athletics stadium where there was nothing but joy. Obviously winning three gold medals in one night is something that the GB team never do. It is impossible but somehow it happened. Not only that it happened to the people you would want. Greg Rutherford, the slightly surprising winner of the long jump has had to endure many ups and downs, injuries and a failure at Beijing that made him feel like giving up, so to eventually come out on top is one of those stories you want to happen. Nothing more can be said about Jessica Ennis and the gracious, sunny way she has born the burden of being the face of the games and the top medal hope. As for Mo Farah - well I just shared the joy and excitement of the BBC commentators.

But later there was something just as significant. At the press conference some numpty journalist asked whether he would have preferred to represent Somali rather than GB Mo Farah replied  "Look mate, this is my country. This is where I grew up, this is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I'm proud. I'm very proud...To win the Olympics in the place you grew up and went to school just means so much to me."

Stick that in your pipe all those miserable people who complained about the multiculturalism of the opening ceremony. This is who we now are: a nation of many peoples and it is great that through the Olympics we have come together to celebrate it

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