From behind the sofa, I watched the first set of the titanic Murray-del Potro showdown on Sunday night and, realising it was going to be a gruelling contest, turned the telly off and went to bed, exhausted. It was heartening to wake up this morning to news of the golden success of “Sensational Sunday”. But why should we care? Haven’t the Olympics, tainted by cheats, performance-enhancing drugs, and big money, become a barely disguised scam and a bloated anachronism?
I like the Olympics. I like the feel-good factor which can lift our spirits for the duration of the Olympiad. Actually that’s not quite right. An Olympiad lasts from one Games to the next – we are always in an Olympiad, but for most people, the elation and inspiration tends to dwindle after the Olympic torch has been extinguished. It takes a special kind of dedication to get up at 4 am every day for four years and go the pool; or to get home of a November night after a hard day’s work, put on your Nikes and go out for a fartlek or twenty. So I doff my hat to the youth of the world who take up the invite to the next time.
But here’s an interesting statistic: the athletics (and surely track and field are at the core of the Olympics) started on Friday night and the attendance, at Havelange Stadium with a capacity for 60,000 souls, was less than 1000. Why? Here’s my theory: sport is basically an activity of the posh.
It may not be immediately obvious that there are class barriers to success in sport (or even entry into sport) if the venue is London or Paris or Sydney, but it becomes clearer if the venue is Rio and the stadium is surrounded by favelas. As a kid, if you are struggling to survive you might kick a ball around the back streets but the last thing you would think of doing is to join a golf club or a sailing club. Why on earth would you wield a tennis racket or a hockey stick when all the time you are exhausted and malnourished? To be interested in sport, you need time and leisure, two commodities the poor just don’t possess.
That much is obvious in the context of a developing country. But it’s also true here in the UK, albeit in an attenuated way. Certain sports are just off limits to the disadvantaged. Can you imagine somebody from Glasgow’s Calton district getting a gold medal in dressage? It’s inconceivable. There are really only three sports that somebody from the east end of Glasgow can aspire to – football, boxing, and snooker.
I once went to see Billy Connolly play Auckland and make 2000 people ache with laughter during a three hour soliloquy that seemed to last about 20 minutes. (You couldn’t imagine what he was going to say next and you had the feeling he didn’t know either.) He told one of these convoluted stories about how it would be if a member of the aristocracy signed on at the Labour Exchange.
“What’s your line of business?”
Connolly held up a finger. “See! There’s the difference!”
The man behind the counter can’t find “toboggan” on his list so checks with his supervisor, who takes a series of suspicious glances at the customer. “Write down tobacconist.” That is a very Glasgow solution to a conundrum.
My favourite sporting hero is Jack Lovelock, the New Zealander who studied medicine at Otago and went to Exeter College Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. He won the 1500 metres gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in one of the strongest fields ever assembled. Harold Abrahams commentated on that race for the BBC. Abrahams himself won the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics. He was played by Ben Cross in the film Chariots of Fire, which portrayed him as a prototypic modern athlete prepared to devote himself heart and soul to the task of winning. In the film, his academic mentors at university castigate him for his attitude which is described as “plebeian” – this, mixed in with a barely disguised anti-Semitism. Abrahams didn’t have to run against somebody who might have been his Nemesis – Eric Liddell, a deeply religious Scotsman who refused to run on Sunday and therefore could not take part in the heats of the 100 metres. He won gold in the 400 metres. I can draw this tale back to New Zealand by recalling an occasion when I did a locum for a NZ doctor, the GP on Great Barrier Island. He was the son of missionaries in China and was born in a Japanese internment camp during the war. As a toddler, he sat on Eric Liddell’s knee.
(I can’t resist telling you a bit more about that locum. Great Barrier Island is a very extraordinary place which features in my up-and-coming tome The Seven Trials of Cameron-Strange. I saw a guy who had sustained a very nasty injury to a finger while slaughtering a wild boar. (You could hardly blame the boar.) He needed the skills of a plastic surgeon. As I was finishing up the locum (I think he was my last patient) and as I had flown to GBI in a Cherokee Warrior 2, I offered to fly him over to Middlemore Hospital in South Auckland, where he needed to go. So he turned up at Claris Airstrip with a haunch of pig by way of thanks.)
Where was I? O yes – the enigmatic Jack Lovelock. There is something deeply mysterious about Lovelock. The New Zealand writer James McNeish captures it in two books – a novella, The Man from Nowhere, and the more substantial Lovelock. Both give a sense of what 1936 Berlin must have been like. After his retirement, Lovelock went on to practise medicine (Orthopaedic Surgery) in Manhattan, and he died mysteriously by falling under a New York subway train.
Lovelock is fascinating because he’s really a bit of an outsider. Andy Murray has that quality. A son of Dunblane dominating in tennis (well, nearly dominating – Murray has a Nemesis too) is almost as unbelievable as a Calton champion in dressage.
But let’s keep a sense of proportion. It’s only a game. I recall reading a poem at school which I’ve been unable to track down, but whose opening lines were
Sport is absurd, and sad.
Harold Abrahams, and his coach Sam Mussabini, may have inaugurated the era of professionalism in sport, but even they had a sense of proportion. In Chariots of Fire, after Abrahams won his race, he and Mussabini had a few drinks and then Mussabini advised Abrahams to go and get a life.