I’ve been enjoying the London Olympics far more than I expected to. Before the Games started I’d feared, like many people, that the commercialisation of sport had got out of hand, that the traffic was going to be a nightmare, that anyone without a Visa card would be effectively banned from spending money, or that the Olympic courts were going to stock our prisons with people who’d gone out in the wrong type of shorts. But since Danny Boyle’s bizarre magical-modernist opening ceremony (topped by the trompe l’oeil of the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter), my disbelief has been suspended. When it comes down to basics, the Olympics, despite the marketing men’s best efforts, is still all about the sport.
And sport, as it hardly needs saying, is about competition. It creates a space in which the rules are tightly defined and referees and invites people to prove their worth on equal terms. To beat your opponent you must be faster, stronger and more skilful (yes, the developed nations have an advantage in the more technical sports involving bikes, boats and horses, but the athletics stadium is still one of the few arenas in the world where people from every continent line up as equals). Competition in this sense is not merely about winning. The men’s 100 metres, one of the events that draws the greatest number of athletes to every Olympic Games, featured no more than four athletes who genuinely had a chance to win the gold medal. Under the ‘winning is everything’ mentality that is gaining ground, the others might as well not have bothered to turn up. Yet still they did. The final was memorable not just for the heroics of Usain Bolt, but because he had to overcome seven athletes, who in turn had risen above thousands of other aspiring sprinters in every country of the world, all of them pushing themselves to their limit.
The Olympics is a world of stories. For a writer who likes sport, it’s like spending two weeks in Disneyland. In the early days I enjoyed the variety of events and the chance to watch sports that never otherwise catch the spotlight. The downside of the British team’s success has been the diminution of the television coverage to a relentless parade of homegrown success, eclipsing everything else. I don’t find it offensive, just inadequate. Much as I’ve enjoyed the feats of Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy and all the rest, it misses something essential about the complexity of sport. Other competitors have become increasingly incidental, so that at times it was difficult to remember that anybody else was in the race. When the British men’s sculls pair narrowly lost a nerveless battle with a Danish crew, there wasn’t a word of acknowledgement of the achievment of the other team, only a misplaced apology for the viewers back home who had been deprived of their fix of British Gold. Increasingly I started to drift away from the BBC’s straitened coverage to seek out other strands of the narrative. There was the remarkable semi-final in the women’s football in which Canada went ahead three times, conceded a late penalty and then saw the United States snatch a winner in the last seconds of extra time. The turbine-like power of the Dutch freestyle swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo, who two years ago was in hospital fighting off meningitis. The astonishing solo run of the Kenyan David Rudisha, who broke the world record in the 800 metres with the graceful ease of a flock of geese in flight. And the brilliant twist in the final of the 400 metres hurdles, as the former champion Felix Sanchez reignited a career that seemed to be in permanent decline with a run of dazzling fluidity.
Sanchez would go on to have a far larger influence on my experience of the Olympics than I could possibly have imagined. I knew he had been untouchable for a few years on the running track, winning the 2004 Olympic crown in 2004, before injuries and poor form brought him down. It was widely assumed he would never hit those heights again and was simply winding down his career. Yet like every Olympic competitor, he was still driven by the desire to do better – perhaps more so, having a memory of what it was like to be the very best. And on Monday night he vindicated all those efforts, stopping the clock in exactly the same time he managed eight years before. Track athletes are in the business of running in circles, but eight years to get back to the same point must be some kind of record.
I don’t care much in general for national anthems. The worst thing about the British success has been the endless playing of God Save The Queen, a plodding dirge whose lyrics equate happiness with imperial conquest. There’s been a debate going on in the UK about whether athletes should sing as they collect their medals, as if this were somehow the true measure of achievement. WhenFelix Sanchez stood on top of the victor’s podium and reflected on the previous eight years of pain and frustration, he wasn’t singing either. Instead he cried, tears of joy mingled with relief, as the sounds of his country’s anthem rang out through the stadium. And the tune itself was a pleasant surprise, like a flower in the desert, strong and delicate at once, a thing of rare and unexpected beauty. On the spur of the moment I sent a Twitter message of appreciation:
At the time I didn’t think medal ceremonies were much more than a courtesy to the winners, an epilogue, a chance to bask in the limelight after straining in it. As I began to realise in the next few days, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The words I’d written chimed with the sense of pride resonating around a nation which had rarely tasted success in the Olympic arena and was determined to savour it. A trickle of messages became a flood; in three days I gained 600 followers from a Caribbean nation of 10 million people. It occurred to me that, not for the first time, I’d dismissed the resilience of the Olympic spirit.
It’s easily done. We’re encouraged to think that sport is only about winning: that second is nowhere. That true sportsmen and women are possessed by a merciless, almost sadistic desire to dominate and humiliate their rivals. For the most part it’s a poisonous myth. One of my favourite Olympic stories is about Jesse Owens in 1936. Not the one about him upsetting Hitler, significant though that is. It’s about the German long jumper, Lutz Long, who saw the American struggling in the qualifying rounds and went over to help him with his run-up. Owens qualified with his final leap and went on to win the gold medal. Under the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality Long’s action was unforgivable, more or less an act of sabotage. But the German was simply adhering to the basic code of sportsmanship. He wanted to win but win properly, by proving his mettle against the strongest competition. Victory in Owens’s absence would have been diminished. Instead he won (or “settled for”, as we say these days) an honourable silver.
Sport verbroedert, as the Dutch say: sport forges brotherhood. True sportsmanship implies respect for the opponent. I find it revealing that tennis, one of the most starkly individual of sports, generates some of the closest friendships among its players. When Novak Djokovic visited Scotland recently, he turned off from the A9 to visit Dunblane, the home town of Andy Murray, and then sent his bitter rival a picture to prove he’d been there. It’s heartening to know, when Djokovic and Murray are bursting every vessel to outscore each other on the court, that underpinning their rivalry is a sincere appreciation of the other’s crafstmanship. It’s because your rival is so good that you want to beat them. Sport isn’t just war without the shooting: it’s the civilisation of the warrior instinct. It brings people together across boundaries and conflicts and makes them compete according to an agreed set of rules, on a basis of mutual respect. To win you have to know your opponent intimately, and once you’ve learned to appreciate an opponent’s qualities it’s much harder to dehumanise them.
I discovered in the next few days that Quisqueyanos Valientes, the national anthem of the Dominican Republic is more than just a fine tune. The lyrics, by the lawyer, teacher, politician and poet Emilio Prud’Homme, convey the pain as well as the pride of a country whose history contains a long and bitter struggle to free itself from slavery. To raise itself up, in the same way that Felix Sanchez climbed back to the top of his event after years of struggle. It was supremely appropriate, in the same sense, that Usain Bolt’s triumph should coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jamaican independence. Nobody would wish to return to the days of colonial rule, when the aggressor nations believed it was their God-given duty to humiliate on the rest of humanity. The Olympic spirit is the antithesis of that. Its proper context is the clean fight in which the winner is first among equals. The glory of victory comes from the drama of the contest, from overcoming opponents of the very best calibre, from the respect and kinship that true competition engenders.
When the Games started I feared that the Olympic values were being corroded: that commercial exploitation and the blinkered focus on results were crushing whatever nobility was left in sport. But by accidentally tapping into the national mood that swept around the Dominican Republic in the wake of Felix Sanchez’s victory, I discovered that the Olympic spirit still exists where it matters: in the hearts of those who take part, whether as athletes or spectators. One gold medal, one flying lap of the track, made ten million people on the other side of the world rejoice. And when that rarely heard jewel of a national anthem filled the stadium, the whole country could share in Sanchez’s triumph, and the whole world could share in the country’s story. That turned out to be the inspiring moment of the Olympics for me, because I was lucky enough to have a part in it. A moment when a few hundred Dominicans helped me discover the truth of that Dutch motto, sport verbroedert.