Anyone who hasn’t been on life support or Mars over the last month or so will know that the Olympics start today. Even for avowedly non sports-oriented types, the quadrennial two-week sporting fiesta is kinda hard to avoid, so we advise you to embrace it — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and all that. And so, here’s our guide to faking your way through the Olympics, from why it’s perfectly OK to skip the opening ceremony to why cricket should totally be an Olympic sport.
The opening ceremony
Right, so, first off, there’s no need to pretend to be interested in this. It’s as boring as batshit, it goes on forever, and nothing happens for hours until the Olympic flame is finally lit in a new and inventive way. The only people who enjoy it are the athletes themselves, who are justifiably proud to be there, and people who like to congratulate themselves on being able to identify the flags of lesser-known African nations. For everyone else, the whole thing is kinda excruciating and can be skipped with a clear conscience.
The 100m sprint
Conversely, this is the one Olympic event that everyone’s always interested in. The buildup takes forever, and then it’s over in less than ten seconds. (If it’s over in less than 9.59 seconds, then someone’s set a new world record. That someone is almost certainly gonna be Jamaican.)
The Olympics’ other headline event is pretty much the polar opposite of the 100m sprint — it’s the marathon, the Games’ oldest event and the one most connected with the legacy of its (largely imagined) past. The event was conceived in 1896 as a quintessentially Olympic one, its distance (which wasn’t actually standardized until years later) a reference to the distance Greek soldier Pheidippides was supposed to have run to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the battle of Marathon. Poor Pheidippides (that’s a statue of him above) collapsed and died at the end of his epic run, and you can see why — 42km is an awfully long way in anyone’s language. Sadly, unless you’re actually at the Olympics to cheer the runners as they go by, it doesn’t make for compulsive TV viewing. You’re better off with…
One of the joys of the Olympics is the fact that it gives you the chance to watch (and pontificate about) events that’d normally never make their way anywhere the television. The thing is, however, that the obsessive sports fan in your life doesn’t know any more about modern pentathlon, rhythmic gymnastics, archery, etc. than you do, so feel free to express any and all opinions about competitors’ techniques, the scoring, or whatever. So long as you sound authoritative, no one will question your judgment. And anyway, you might find that you actually enjoy the K2 canoeing or the Greco-Roman wrestling. We particularly recommend the fencing, which is ace.
Why some sports are in the Olympics and others aren’t
The thing is, though, that despite the Olympics seeming to cover every conceivable sporting base, they don’t — there are plenty of sports that don’t feature, either because they’ve been given the heave-ho or because they’ve never been given a chance. Some of the sports that used to feature sound pretty great — who wouldn’t want to watch an Olympic tug-of-war, or spend a day at the poodle-clipping? — but even apart from such delights, some modern-day omissions are kinda baffling: it’s hard to see why beach volleyball features and, say, netball or squash don’t. Or cricket! We want cricket! Seriously, it’s played on four continents by 25% of the world’s population. You can’t say the same about beach volleyball, but the answer to how sports make the Olympic cut, as ever, lies in “lobbying.” These matters are voted on by the IOC, bless them, and thus it’s the sports that lobby the best that make the grade.
As youngsters, we watched Ben Johnson smash the world 100m record in the 1988 Olympics and then get caught shortly afterwards for having used steroids. It was pretty heartbreaking, actually — as far as shattering illusions go, the vision of Johnson crossing the finish line, finger pointed skyward as he gazed back at the field he’d just destroyed, was a pretty powerful one. Even before that notorious race, drug use hung heavy over the Olympics, and so it does still. It’s a fair bet that at least one high-profile athlete will get caught this year, and that plenty more won’t. Sigh.
The death grip that corporate sponsorship has over the Olympics is the subject of perennial (or quadrennial) debate these days. But the hand-wringing has kicked up a notch in recent years, and rightly so. The whole sorry business took over in earnest at the 1996 Coca-Cola Games — sorry, the Atlanta Olympics — and has snowballed since. This year, UK Olympics chief Sebastian Coe — a former long-distance runner himself — has recently had to backtrack on statements that sounded awfully like claims that spectators wearing off-brand apparel would be refused entry into events. The Olympic spirit is alive and well, folks.
The obligatory round of maybe-just-a-wee-bit-patronizing publicity heaped upon a token competitor from an impoverished nation for “trying his/her best”
Last time round, it was Eric the Eel, and every Olympics seems to end up with an unofficial mascot, a beaming competitor from a country that 99% of the sports-lovin’ public has never heard of, who finishes hours behind the field/gets lapped repeatedly/etc. and then gets interviewed by every television crew in the world looking for a human interest angle. The fact that the competitor in question’s country probably can’t afford a swimming pool because it’s been ravaged by Western mining companies/oil companies/banks/the IMF is discreetly ignored. Instead, everyone basks in the momentary glory of a true feel-good story, makes encouraging noises about how it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s just how you compete — and then goes back to watching athletes from countries that probably spend more on their Olympic programs than our trying-his-best competitor’s country’s annual GDP tearing strips off one another in pursuit of gold, gold, gold. God bless the Olympic spirit.
The Olympic spirit
But lest you call us cynical, however, we guess there are still vestiges of the Olympic spirit to be found, and for all that it’s easy to find fault with the current state of the Games — which has little to do with the original 1896 version, let alone the ancient Olympic games — the Olympic idea of bringing together athletes from every country in the world remains a pretty powerful one. If only it could be done in a way that didn’t involve being sponsored by Dow Chemicals. Sigh.
The closing ceremony
In which there’s a symbolic handover of the torch to the country who’s paid sufficient bribes impressed the IOC enough to host the Games in four years’ time. Your Australian-born correspondent still has nightmares about the 1996 Athens closing ceremony, which involved the torch being given to kangaroos on bicycles in preparation for the 2000 Sydney games. Kangaroos. On bicycles. Whatever London 2012 has to serve up, we’re pretty sure it won’t include kangaroos on bicycles. The Games just ain’t what they used to be.