I have always been very separate from nationalistic sporting support. Not because I’m some extremist leftie who thinks it’s some arch and oh-so-look-at-me thing to think, but because my brain just doesn’t get it. Arbitrary dotted lines on a round, round globe don’t logically differentiate humanity in ways that make me think I should want one of them to win at something more than another. The only rationale I could think of for picking an entire nation and wanting it to win would be based on some measure of national merit, and therefore I think there would be a few other countries that would come top of my list over the UK. Mere proximity to an athlete or team, no matter what cultural aspects I may happen to share, has never made sense for me as a means to care.
I’m also aware that sport is way more fun to watch if there’s one team you want to win more than the other. Baseball has long been the only sport that I’ve really engaged with, and I’ve relatively arbitrarily picked a National League and American League team to support. Investing in a team makes the process far more entertaining.
And so, with the Olympics happening in London, I find myself falling between these two fences.
I tend to describe myself as someone who doesn’t care about sport. But I think what I mean by that is that I don’t care about football, nor cricket, rugby or tennis. And since that’s all that’s ever shown on TV here, it pretty much rules out any active interest in the whole affair. I also thought I had no interest in the Olympics – I was very much hoping that Paris would win the bid, simply so we wouldn’t have the fuss, hassle, expense and noise it would inevitably bring. I was not looking forward to the inevitable massive expense, the endless, tedious media coverage of the build up to the event, nor the all-encompassing noise of it all throughout.
Then I watched the opening ceremony.
I thought a good deal of it was pretty silly, a fair amount was very impressive, and was rather delighted to see its cynical edge and partisan tone. But the part I enjoyed the most, despite just how ridiculously long it was, was the parade of the nations. Because I realised, actually, this event was entirely endorsing my perspective – of a round, round globe, with undifferentiated humanity. Just people, humans, all looking awfully similar to each other, smiling underneath their portion’s silly flag. And, for the first time in my adult life, I got it. While the event is of course entirely comprised of competitiveness between the nations, it’s not in the same way as something like a football World Cup. It’s not about the nationalism-cum-racism of hating other nations in the guise of loving one’s own, but rather about the people who are best in the world at particular things getting together in one place to see who is currently best of all.
Not caring about sport was likely something that was taught to me very carefully at school. I went to a middling comprehensive, and like most others our sporting education consisted of being forced to wear minimal clothing on freezing cold days while the kids who the teachers liked got to play a game. I can remember one six week period of cricket, my ilk being sent off into the nets far away from the sporty kids, ignored throughout by the teachers who focused their efforts on those who presumably took an extra-curricular interest in the matter. Football and rugby were similar, as the sporting students were taught while the rest of us were just told to kick a ball back and forth and not get in the way.
The dominance of those sports in our education was the first issue. The second was that actually, we were taught a more interesting range on occasions, but it didn’t make a difference to the attention we received.
I remember one Summer at secondary school we were taught various ‘field’ events, such as long jump, javelin, etc. And it turned out that I was the best in my lessons at both javelin and shot. Not that anyone noticed. I observed, for myself, that I threw further than anyone else. But the teachers, so fixated on their sporty few, the ones who might represent a school team at something, absolutely did not notice nor care. I was showing promise in these events, despite being a fat kid who hated football, but when the time came to pick people for the county competition, of course I was not even mentioned. I didn’t care a jot, of course.
The same was true during an odd term where we spent four or so weeks on a variety of less common sports. Weightlifting and volleyball are the two I remember most. The former because I was able to lift more than anyone else in the school year, and the latter because I took to it immediately, was surprisingly good, and was on the winning side of every game with which I was involved. On my report for that year I was graded ‘C’ for volleyball, presumably based on the gym teacher’s just guessing. For weightlifting they couldn’t help but notice my picking up a heavier thing than the others did, but I remember receiving absolutely no praise for this at all, and instead being told that some scrawny kid called Philip Kelmsley had in fact won, because he’d lifted up a cotton bud despite being made of twigs.
Obviously I’m not claiming I was a budding prodigy in any of these sports, certainly not. But it was fair to say I showed enough talent for it to be a hobby I could pursue. And I find it hard not to imagine that if just one of the three teachers who “taught” us over the GCSE years had bothered to say, “Hey, you did well there – have you considered doing it some more?” I might not be the overweight slob I am now.
I should say, this isn’t some grudge I carry on my shoulder, assuming that if only the overworked and underpaid gym teachers had recognised my promise I’d be there in those Olympics today. But it does occur to me now that had they cared, I could maybe be someone who took part in a sporting thing as an adult. And I wonder how true that is for others.
So it’s interesting to me that it’s the Olympics that has me thinking this. And that’s in a large part due to the extraordinary access offered by the BBC. Being able to put on sports I’ve never watched before, via the 24 live streams on their website, has been amazing. And best of all, many of them don’t have commentary. As I write there’s a game of handball on the other screen, uninhibited by people inanely informing me that they players have legs, or that they’ve run out of petrol (as a commentator informed audiences yesterday during the horsey prancing). Their televised coverage may be as bemusing as ever, interrupting ongoing track and field events to broadcast the same tennis match that’s on another of their channels, or having Gary Lineker linking endless VTs while the featured athletes are actually appearing. But the live streams are something to really celebrate, and have given me access to see sports I not only find hugely entertaining to watch, but find myself wishing I could participate in.
Handball and volleyball have been the stand-out entertainment for me, and it does make me sad knowing that it’ll be another four years, and a far more awkward timeslot, before I can watch them again. And it’s great to discover that, now the field events have begun, the feeds let you concentrate on just one discipline, rather that getting the odd glimpse of a long jump in between the agonising monotony of the first seventy billion laps of a 10,000m race. It also means you get to watch matches or events that don’t feature Team GB.
Which eventually brings me back to where I started. I’ve felt challenged on my convictions, especially last night as the Great British And Some Irelandish team won three gold medals in a row. I was really pleased by this. So why?
I think it comes down to achievement. The UK does not tend to do well at sporting events, thus our ironic celebration of mediocre sportspersons. Seeing British athletes succeeding in events where the country usually embarrasses itself means there has been significant improvement somewhere along the way. It’s not a coincidence that this is the generation for whom lottery funding made it possible to work full time at their pursuit, but it remains remarkable to see people from this island performing so well in so many events. I have an understanding of why this is unusual, and therefore a connection to seeing these people outdo themselves and those before them.
But the same was true of watching Phelps in the pool. I was certainly hoping he would win when racing against swimmers from GB, because for him to continue to win medals was a far more interesting achievement than anything else. That he finished his career with eighteen Olympic golds, when no one else has ever won more than nineteen medals of any colour, was something truly extraordinary. And, crucially, deserved.
I really hope the performances of Britain’s entrants will inspire. But not the “next generation of athletes” as the BBC appears to be obliged to chant every fifteen seconds. I hope it inspires the current generation of adults, teachers, parents and trainers, to realise that the responsibility lies with them. And not just to raise up a new generation of Olympic athletes, because such a grand phrase is a very silly thing to say – that’s, what, fifty people? How about raising up a new generation of chubby, bookish kids to realise that there are sports out there for them?