There’s no doubt in my mind what was the highlight of the Olympic games. No doubt, that is, if you exclude events off the field of play, a caveat that would exclude Bert Le Clos’s euphoric reaction to his son Chad pipping Michael Phelps to the gold in the 200m butterfly – and kudos to Clare Balding who managed to avoid going down the easy street of making Le Clos Sr look like a clown. So excluding that, the most spectacular moment was David Rudisha’s preposterous solo run to world record-breaking glory in the 800m. It was helped again by its presentation to the world as Tony O’Donoghue went into orbit on RTÉ. Alas I have not been able to find a link to it online, but after a couple of minutes of worshipful spluttering he paused and said “am I over-emoting”? George Hamilton’s gentle chuckle said no. It was awesome, and it would me make you want to get up and run.
Okay, it wouldn’t. Much of the talk around the Olympic games in the UK has been about the potential for a legacy in a country where large swathes of its populace subsist entirely on takeaway kebabs. In the lead-up to the games, any optimistic talk that a successful Olympics could lead to such a sea-change in attitudes was scoffed at by the chattering classes, an attitude that has been swamped by the euphoria surrounding a genuinely spectacular event. And it would be churlish to deny the Brits their moment in the sun. When Andy Murray crashed and blubbed after his defeat to Roger Federer in the Wimbledon men’s final my wife was crushed, convinced that this was a harbinger of doom and they were going to have a disastrous Olympics. Mitt Romney couldn’t have articulated her fears better. So it was a source of relief to see her get progressively more cheerful as the fortnight went on and their pride in a job well done in the face of the sniping of the likes of Romney is understandable.
However, that doesn’t mean it was all worth it. Each medal cost a staggering £4.5 million per head, and the GAA man within recoils from the idea that elite sportsmen should be subsidised for doing something they enjoy. If it led to mass participation in each sport then that would be money well spent, the very best kind of advertising. But it won’t. You just know it won’t. If someone watched (say) Jade Jones and thought that taekwondo is the sport for them, the odds are that they’re not going to be able to find an outlet for their newly-discovered passion. The kind of investment that would be required to make all the Olympic sports accessible to the multitudes would be gargantuan, certainly not the kind of thing to appeal to politicians who (to their credit were they to do it) would be making a leap of faith that it would work and (to their debit were they to do it) would not involve the kind of headline-grabbing outcomes that the Olympics can provide.
And besides, do we really care about the likes of high-level taekwondo? I hope this doesn’t come across as picking on it, there’s a taekwondo club in Tramore of long-standing and they do great work. But not all Olympic sports are equal. As per the Crooked Timber article from which the image at the top of the page is taken (and which makes you shiver with pleasure that anyone would take the time out to compliment hurling) some sports belong and some don’t’. For me, there are three categories:
- sports that have no place in the Olympics
- sports that lack a true Olympian feel, but the Games are the pinnacle of the sport
- sports that are the Olympics
The first category is simple enough. Who cares about the soccer Olympic gold? Do you seriously think Andy Murray would not swap his medal for a Grand Slam title, even without any prize money? We’ll be saying much the same about golf in four year’s time especially if Rory McIlroy wins it for GB; obviously winning it for Ireland would make it okay. There are sports where the only people who care are the direct participants like synchronised swimming, modern pentathlon, diving or beach volleyball. If these events were staged at the foot of Mount Olympus they could look forward to a thunderbolt from Zeus and any politician who spent money on them for the purposes of getting someone to the top of the podium deserves a similar fate.
The second and third categories are much more subjective. Okay, it’s all subjective but I’d go to war to defend the above paragraph. To determine the second category, let’s separate out the third category, the Olympic sports that really matter – athletics, boxing, swimming and gymnastics. I wouldn’t go to war over the last one, but it has an undoubted Olympic pedigree and to win a medal in gymnastics is to be a somebody. Swimming is the same, the kind of event people will seek out rather than watch just because it happens to be on which is why so many would have witnessed Bert Le Clos’s histrionics. Boxing is the one truly amateur sport left in the games, and also has that rock-solid reputation – we all know where Cassius Clay first rose to prominence. Then there’s the athletics. To win a medal on the track or in the field is to be elevated into the sporting pantheon, and the fact that one of only five Irish people to win an Olympic athletics medal (for Ireland; I know where Bob Tisdall was and Mary Peters is from) is one J Treacy of Villierstown does not influence my opinion. Watching David Rudisha would. Athletic is the Olympics. Medals there would be worth the investment.
Then there’s . . . the rest. Much is made of New Zealand’s prowess in picking up Olympic medals and Ireland comes off badly in comparison. Similar population, remote island status, has a sport that dwarfs all those around it. Rugby in their case, gaelic football in ours, in case that’s too cryptic. Yet they have the highest per-capita number of medals won in the world. Why can’t we be like them? Fair question. But have you ever looked at the medals they’ve won? I’m not going to pick on another sport, but there’s a distinct lack of the blue riband events from category three above. Almost all of them fall into category two. They’re worthy and winning Olympic gold is the pinnacle of the sport. But if the Irish government were to make the kind of investment necessary to compete in rowing – okay, I’m picking on someone – there would be uproar at such a frivolous waste on what Jerry Kiernan would doubtless term an elitist sport. And he’d be right. We could all pick a sport, spend £10 million on it, and be guaranteed a few medals. But why would you want to?
It’s amazing how quickly the news cycle moves on. Since I started cobbling together this post the Olympics has been supplanted in the headlines by other events. Even the Brits, who were behaving as if the love affair would never end, are now more concerned with Prince Harry’s public private parts. Once the platitudes about the value of the Paralympics have passed, the next big Olympic story in the British press will be the war over the future of the Olympic Stadium. West Ham United want it, they’ll get it, and will then proceed to bleat about how the track is useless, pointing to the man-and-a-dog crowds that turn up for Mo Farah-less athletics meets as evidence. Enda Kenny will find he has bigger concerns that, having come up with the right form of words about the value of mol an óige so he can have a photo shoot with the boxing medallists, he won’t have to follow up on those words. We all love tennis when Wimbledon is on, yet no one would dream of spending pucks of money on the sport when it’s not on. Much the same is true of the Olympics. Leave its component sports to their own devices, and let’s concentrate on the sports we actually care about 1,461 days of each Olympiad.