Mark Steel: If you don't like sport, you're wrong
Published 20/08/2008 | 07:58
One morning, after achieving four straight hours watching the Olympics, I realised it was time to stop when the commentator said, and these were the exact words: "You have to say, that is a very important moment in the history of Algerian judo."
The only times it's hard to maintain interest are during the utterly contrived events, like the weird cycling contests, where you wonder if the next race will be "1000 metres sprint while ironing" or "3000 metres indoor pursuit through a swarm of bees".
But the Olympics, despite all the greed and power games behind them, demonstrate that people who have no interest in sport aren't just expressing a matter of taste, they're wrong, as much as someone who dismisses music or theatre. And sport has a unique attraction, which is that the outcome is unknown to anyone before it takes place. Theatre might learn from this, so in every performance of King Lear, Gloucester gets a chance to dodge being blinded, and if he succeeds a commentator shouts "Oh my goodness, what a miss."
Because the joy of the Olympics isn't just to witness the skill involved, as then you could have events such as Glassblowing and Plumbing, with Barry Davies sent along to mutter: "Look out for the much fancied Poles in Heat 1 of the 15 metres coxless soil stack." Nor is the fascination driven mostly by the nationalism that surrounds the football World Cup. Otherwise, Chinese officials would be bemused as to why hundreds of British fans with no shirts on were in the gymnastics hall chanting "No surrender to the IRA" while a Costa Rican was doing a routine on the parallel bars, before getting drunk in Tiananmen Square and screaming "Who are yer who are yer" at the Venezuelan volleyball supporters.
Instead, the main joy is observing the human drama at the centre of the events. Because sport is about the human sub-plots, the attempts to recover from injuries, the social background of the competitors, and the personal rivalries. The last laps of a long distance race are compelling because you can feel the athletes trying to mentally defeat their opponent, just as the final frame of a game of snooker is a test of nerve, and not a study of angles.
The interview with the British hurdler who unexpectedly got to the final was so uplifting, because this joyous woman was so astonished with herself she could only let out a series of squeals, that were somehow utterly coherent. The delight of Usain Bolt is not just his speed, but the supreme casual Jamaicanness with which he employs it.
When a British athlete wins, the most common reaction seems not to be an embittered gutteral "Yes – go on for Britain," but a share in the personal triumph as we learn about the athlete's background, the family that couldn't afford to go, her old schoolmates that cheered her on. If we personalised the foreign athletes, we might feel a similar way about them.
And in that respect sport is indeed like war. Because just as commentators are likely to shriek: "This is a fantastic run from Tidsdale, Tidsdale for Great Britain, what a run, oh Tidsdale, Tidsdale, Tidsdale, it's Tidsdale who gets a bronze, the winner's a Kenyan and then a Swede but bronze for Tidsdale," in war we learn of a dead soldier's grieving family, angry friends, devastated colleagues and sense the misery. But if it's foreigners we get: "Afghans claimed between 30 and 50 civilians, killed somewhere on a hill today. Now here's Alan with the sport."