03 August, 2012

"The Essential Thing in Life is Not Conquering But Fighting Well"

Well, the great event has arrived. Many years in the dreaming and the planning the London 2012 Olympics is well underway! So far so good as we near the half way point – lots of celebration, huffing and puffing, tears, disputes, disappointments, joy, cynicism, empty seats and cheering. In fact – pretty much like every other Olympics!

For the past seven plus years I have to say that I have had a healthy (maybe unhealthy!) cynicism of the event – mainly based on the obvious (and arguably necessary) corporate involvement, the role of politicians who blatantly use the event and jingoistic patriotism of the event to beat their own drum, the gradual (it seems to me) demeaning and year on year diminishing of the Olympic ideal and, in latter years, the question of whether , in these straitened economic times, we should actually be spending money on this sort of thing.
But, having said all that, now that it is here it is difficult not to be at different times impressed, interested, involved and yes, occasionally inspired.

I settled down (a little unwillingly!) to watch the opening ceremony and was ready to be negative and, in grumpy old man mode, stump off to bed early! In fact I was soon enchanted by the novelty, the organisation, the inspiration and the underlying messages being sent out. This was no jingoistic flag waving ceremony. It didn’t beat great military drums or make unnecessary pulls on patriotic heart strings. It was a simple reflection of main themes and social history of a people – not the great and good, not the great events, not battles won and advances made – just a simple montage of the British people and how we had developed not what we had won in battle or on the sports field. Of course, everyone (including me) had ideas about what had been missed out and what should have been included. For me I thought the Magna Charta should have had a place – but on reflection that was a specific historical event and if the Magna Charta why not something else. No, I thought Danny Boyle, the man behind the “production”, got it just right.
The Queen looks glum!

The main criticism in the media of the opening ceremony seems to be that it was some kind of left wing “plot”. Maybe it was – and that was why I felt a little inspired by it! For me, I really only had one real criticism – and that was not of the ceremony but rather about the grumpy expression on the Queen’s face each time she was shown. Both she and the Duke of Edinburgh really looked as if they didn’t want to be there. I know that much has been made of the Queen’s escapade with 007, James Bond, and that was great  fun – but as Pat (who is much more a royalist than myself) commented, as the cameras panned onto Her Majesty, “she was all smiles at her own jubilee a few weeks ago – why can’t she smile now when someone else is celebrating”.  Maybe Her Majesty wanted more drum banging, military bands, jingoistic flag waving, pomp and circumstance, British stiff upper and grand pageantry such as parades of past monarchs and great statesmen, maybe a reincarnation of the British Raj complete with suitably subservient members of her far flung colonies swearing their never ending allegiance to her!  – in other words, the sort of things she is used to!
But, be that as it may, it leads me to what I thought was the best comment about the opening ceremony. In her column in the Guardian Shami Chakrabarti, director of the Civil Rights organisation “Liberty”  and one of the Olympic flag bearers in the ceremony, commented on the “poignant contrast” between the Beijing and London approach.“In China, human rights campaigners get locked up; in Britain, even the most irritating gets to carry the Olympic flag” commented Chakrabarti.  The flag bearers selected in London broke with Olympic tradition – usually the bearers are always athletes but this time they  were individuals  all noted for their commitment to civil liberties  or other humanitarian causes. One could regard most of them as “rattlers of the establishment cage”  and as such, maybe Her Majesty felt a bit vulnerable! It’s rather comforting  to feel  that even in these days of cctv cameras and security services prying into our lives that England is one of the few countries where one could get away with that. Indeed, I’m not sure that even in the USA,  a nation that prides itself above all others on its values of free speech it could have occurred in the same way. I read this week of the death of the American writer Gore Vidal -  a man who has spent his life pricking the conscience of his country such as with his famous 1970s offering:  "There is only one party in the United States, the Property party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties." Wonderful – and sad to say just as applicable in 2012 Britain!  As I read his obituary I wondered if he would have been selected to carry the Olympic flag in the USA – I couldn’t see it myself.  Maybe I’m wrong – I’m sure any readers from across the pond will soon disabuse me!  The chosen London flag bearers gently reminded me of a week or so ago  standing on Aldeburgh beach and looking at the great stainless steel sculpture there – “The Scallop” with its thought provoking legend – “I hear those voices that will not be drowned”   (blog: http://www.arbeale.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-right-stuff.html). Just as on Aldeburgh beach, it was a good feeling!
Flag bearers in London

And in the days that have followed I have found myself, whilst not exactly swept away by the Games, certainly pulled along by them. Of course there is plenty to be cynical about – empty seats, corporate greed, drug testing, the questioning of the integrity of the Chinese swimmer who has smashed all the records in the most unbelievable manner, the expulsion of the Badminton teams from Asia, the “failure” of many of the British hopefuls .......and so it goes on. But in the final analysis I find myself sitting on the edge of my seat cheering on various competitors and marvelling at their skills. As I write this I’ve just watched the two British rowers Helen Glover & Heather Stanning  win Britain’s first gold medal – soon followed by Bradley Wiggins taking the cycling gold. And although I hate myself for it I occasionally sneak a look at the medals table to see how the Brits are doing! I read in the paper yesterday that the Australian media were a bit unimpressed by their team’s performance so far and one Australian commentator had bemoaned the fact that in one event an Australian had been beaten “by a Pom” – the ultimate disgrace for an Ozzie – to be beaten by a Brit! And I feel exactly the same – it gives me a warm glow if we “stuff”  the Yanks or the Ozzies or the Frogs! And of course they feel exactly the same about us!

But, of course, it’s more than that.

I recently saw a clip of the 1948 Olympics held in London – they were known as “the austerity Olympics” because they were held in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when Britain and other nations were suffering great economic hardship.  I reflected that there is a nice symmetry that now in 2012, as Britain hosts the Olympics again, we are all still suffering a period of austerity, albeit rooted in factors other than world war! But in 1948, proudly displayed in lights over Wembley Stadium was the message: “The important thing in the Olympics is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”.  I’m not sure that Bradley Wiggins or Michael Phelps or any other of the athletes of any nation would, at the moment, see it that way but in the end that is what it has to be all about and it is not only the Olympic ideal but also the implicit underpinning of any sport. George Orwell, no lover of sport of any kind, once famously said “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting”.  I can see where Orwell was coming from and in many ways agree with him - when the desire for victory and trophies becomes more important  than common decency or respect then it ceases to be a sport and becomes a battle.
1948 - "the essential thing in life is not conquering
but fighting well"

Orwell was right, sport at its best is about more than just winning. Yesterday we watched the women’s diving and although disappointed that the Brits didn’t do better it was awe inspiring to see the skills of all of the divers – especially the winning Chinese girls. The same is true with other events. One sees athletes fall exhausted at the end of their event and know that they have missed out on the medal that they have trained so hard for – their dream gone. We see athletes moved to tears as they listen to their national anthem being played and the crowd cheer their victory and gold medal. These are the sorts of images that are far more important than the actual number of gold medals won.  They are about the years of training and commitment that has been put in, the hard work and dedication and most importantly, the recognition and respect for the other competitors and their efforts and skills; you go all out to win, to achieve your dream but you also accept defeat graciously.
But sadly, this is the problem that I have with the Olympics – as with all other great sports events today – increasingly victory and trophies are seen as the only criteria of success. Success is the only game in town. Failure cannot be countenanced.  In football we so often see and hear that defeat is disaster, only victory and success will be tolerated.  Managers are sacked after a handful of defeats. Victory is all. All too often we hear comments similar to that of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (a man I have a huge amount of time for) – following a defeat he complained “it is a disaster”.......err, no it isn’t it’s simply a game of football lost – no more no less.

And the quest for victory and success influences decisions and often policy. Today, Lord Moynihan, head of the British Olympics team commented that it was unfortunate that so many of our (GB) medal winners were educated at private schools rather than state schools. Moynihan’s point was that there appears to be a vast pool of untapped talent when at the Beijing Olympics  over 50% of the medals that GB won were won by athletes who had attended private schools where presumably coaching/sporting facilities  were better. Moynihan said: “It is wholly unacceptable that over 50 per cent of our medallists in Beijing came from the private sector. It tells you that 50 per cent of the medals came from 7 per cent of the population.......There is so much talent out there in the 93 per cent that should be identified and developed. That has got to be a priority for future sports policy” .  

His comments could be the subject of a future blog/“rant” since it is people of Moynihan’s political persuasion that are responsible for the situation, but for the moment I will accept that he has a point.  The drive for medals and victory and glory and, ultimately, hero worship seem to be increasingly the rationale and raison d’être for action and approval. But in relation to Moynihan’s comments, no matter how hard I try I cannot accept that the desire for sporting excellence and the winning of medals should be a factor in determining the sporting and educational policy of a nation. As those who have read my blogs before will know I am bitterly against the private school system in this country, I am anti the elitist doctrine that underpins so much of British life and private schooling and would dearly love it to be changed. But not, even in a small part, should it be changed simply to develop sporting excellence and win more medals – as the Olympic ideal states it’s the taking part that is important. The winning is a happy by-product. Moynihan’s comments, although understandable, seem to me to be making sport far more important than it is – and in the end sport is a pretty unimportant part of the human condition.  As my daughter says of football: “it’s just 22 blokes running around a field kicking a bag of air” . She is absolutely right. Bradley Wiggins’ recent cycling  successes are wonderful and to be praised – but in the end he’s just a bloke riding a bike a bit faster than a few other blokes. Whatever the sport, whatever the level, in the end that is what it is. And once one accepts that premise, as I do, it cannot be considered a factor in determining a nation’s educational, social or sporting policy. 
The only news in town is Olympic news - this morning's
papers. War, famine, unemployment, austerity and
the rest have been reduced to non-news.
Were they really important if they can be dropped
so easily in favour of one bloke or woman running
one hundredth of a  second faster than another! 

I know that I am out of step. I know that I am wrong but I do get increasingly depressed at all the associated hype and inflated relevance that permeates all sport at the highest level. Whether it be a Premiership footballer, Michael Phelps in the swimming pool, wonderful diving from the Chinese, Chis Hoy on his bicycle or any other top echelon of sport it seems to me that the coaching, the perfection, the necessary kit (be it bicycle, swimming costume or running shoe), the attention paid to diet and training schedules and all the other paraphernalia required to be at the top have become more important than the individual, the sport and the taking part as a simple pastime. To a large extent gone are the opportunities for people with a simple talent and desire to take part.  To balance the books slightly, it was heartening to read in yesterday’s Guardian and other papers that our two Olympic Gold rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, to a degree, bucked this trend; fairly ordinary people – a PE teacher and soldier – they have only been rowing for a relatively a short period of time and only been together as a team for two years. On the other hand they proved Lord Moynihan’s point completely – both ladies were educated at two of our top private schools Millfield and Gordonstoun. But this apart, compared with many who have been whisked away to elite academies and the like, they are almost “amateurs”!

But for the most part, the Olympics, like the Premiership, have become the home of supermen and women who we rightly cheer but who for me have lost a little of their ordinary humanity.  All of the commentators reminded us after Glover and Stanning won their gold medal “their lives will never be the same again”  - well in one sense that is wonderful if their talent and hard work is rewarded but in another, I think, rather sad. Like Premiership footballers Olympians will live in their gated mansions away from the supporters who support, celebrate and look up to them.  They will, like other top athletes, become removed from common humanity and become sporting gods – and increasingly with the commercialism and wealth that comes with success be treated more and more as such and driven by its pressures and opportunities. This pressure and emphasis on success and victory is presumably one of the prime factors in driving a sportsman to break the rules – take drugs, or bend the rules as the various Asian Badminton teams have done this week. As  Orwell reminded us – “war minus the shooting”!
Nat Lofthouse

Pundits constantly remind us about the huge pressures the athletes are under – I’m sure they are when victory is the only criteria of success. How could it not be otherwise – only one person can win the race and sponsorship, commercial backing and glory awaits the victor. But in the end, talented sportsmen and women are living the dream – they are fortunate in having the skills and these combined with their hard work and dedication can result in glory and adulation. Whether it is pulling on a shirt for Manchester United; whether it is Michael Phelps or Bradley Wiggins top sportsmen and women are able to enjoy, on a day to day, basis doing something that most of the rest of the population would envy as they get on with their hum drum jobs to earn a living. They are living the dream, doing what they love and getting paid and lauded for it. If there be pressure it must go with the territory.  Whenever I hear the word pressure mentioned in relation to sportsmen and women I think of two wonderful quotes from two top sportsmen of a different generation.  Firstly from  Nat Lofthouse the England footballer. I saw him play on many occasions. Lofthouse was a man of his time. The son of a coal-bagger  he was given £10 as his signing-on fee for Bolton just before the War.  He later said "I know £10 doesn't seem much these days but it was four times more than my Dad was getting per week as a coal bagger.......I got easy money,"  he said. "I know - I've worked down the pit, and I've played football."

I have just listened to ex-US Olympic athlete Michael Johnson discussing some of the athletes on show. I have a huge amount of respect for Johnson - for me he is unquestionably the best of the pundits - he is matter of fact and rather laid back about it all. But even he, the master of the understatement, used the phrase "huge pressure" on four occasions in a commentary lasting only a few seconds! It all reminds me of Keith Miller, the great Australian cricket all rounder.  A player who was known as the “golden boy” of Australian cricket – so much so that he was nicknamed “nugget”. Miller had been a fighter pilot in the Second World War and was known to be fiercely competitive on the field of play. But he kept it in perspective. When asked about the pressure he was under when playing for Australia in a critical Ashes Test Match his answer? “Pressure? I’ll tell you what pressure is. It’s having a Messerschmitt  up your arse in a dog fight. Cricket and sport is not pressure – it’s enjoying yourself”.  A sense of perspective I think.

Having said all that it has been inspiring to watch the response of Olympic athletes when compared with their footballing counterparts. Of course we have seen great joy and despair when dreams have been realised or dashed. We have seen athletes collapsing with exhaustion at the end of the race. And it was inspiring last night when Jessica Ennis won her gold medal in the Heptathlon and was interviewed immediately after the race to hear her say the words that Keith Miller might have said.... "Yes, I was under great pressure to win and was so nervous.........." but she added "it was a nice kind of pressure". What a wonderful contrast to the Premiership and many other sports where the excuse of "the pressure of the game" is given for weekly foul mouthed outbursts of the type made by Chelsea and England player John Terry recently. How come I have not been aware, in any of the Olympic events that I have seen to date, of competitors muttering or screaming expletives or aggressively venting their spleen in words or deeds  in their exasperation, failure or  pressured environment?
Keith Miller

Another aspect of this glorification of success and the inflation of the importance of sport is the role of the media and politicians. A letter in today’s Guardian commented that at the Olympics in 1912 (also held in London) the event warranted only a single column on page six of the paper. In today’s Guardian and on the digital Guardian we have page after page after page - totally disproportionate to its importance, value or worth. We are all reading about and avidly watching sports of which we know nothing – often not even the rules. All the things that were making the headlines before – war, famine, terror, economic crises, unemployment, disease – have been relegated to the back pages. Well, maybe that is not such a bad thing, just maybe it puts everything in perspective and maybe we are entitled occasionally to a bit of light relief from the doom laden prophesies of the political pundits. But for two weeks the news has been turned on its head.  Will I, or anyone else, ever be able to take austerity seriously again? Will I be concerned about famine in Africa? Will I be horrified by the next terrorist attack – after all, their newsworthiness and importance has been conveniently subjugated in the name of a few sportsmen and women running or swimming or cycling or rowing fractions of a second faster or slower than a few other athletes. Is sport really that important? I find it very difficult to accept this premise.

Yes, the Olympic circus in town – roll up, roll up, and pay your money! Jump on the band wagon. Our politicians tell us that there will be an Olympic legacy that the young will be enthused to take up these sports. And yes, I would accept that in the short term little boys and girls will ask for a Bradley Wiggins’ bike for Christmas or a Rebecca Adlington swimming costume – and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the longer term the cynic in me whispers “it won’t last”. Indeed, the hype even spreads further from the actual sportsman or woman – in this morning’s Guardian (August 3rd) the question (a whole article on it!) is asked “is Claire Balding the BBC Sports Commentator a national treasure”  because of her commentary and media skills. The Guardian should be ashamed.  In the end it is another example of modern society's tendency to over value the ordinary. "National  Treasure"  implies something of greatness and lasting value; something that rightly should be respected and remembered long after its time has passed. Competent though Ms Balding (and her fellow commentators) may be they are no more than that - people doing the job for which they are well paid. Will we still, in twenty years time, be looking back at old footage of Ms Balding and expressing our continuing admiration - I think not. We see the same tendency week in week out in Premiership football when a simple, very ordinary goal is described as a "great goal"  when the reality is that within hours few could remember it. In the end, footballers, like Ms Balding, are only doing their job - for which they are paid huge amounts of money to score goals and present TV shows - and not be labelled "national treasurers"!     Everyone, however  unwillingly is jumping on the Olympic bandwagon and basking in the warm glow.  But in the end, what we are experiencing at the moment is just temporary, popular hype – when the circus rolls out it will just be a happy memory. Again, nothing wrong with that – a pleasant couple of weeks where hopefully we (and other nations) felt good about ourselves – but in the end that is all it is -  a pleasant pastime. No more, no less.

Politicians, too, want a bit of the Olympic limelight. David Cameron, Boris Johnson and the rest can’t resist a bit of glory by association. These games are so important they tell us, to stimulate youth interest in sport, to help the struggling economy, to revive an otherwise ruin down part of London......and so the list goes on. But these highly laudable aspirations are it seems not sufficient for the government to simply put the investment in to solve the problems without the Olympics. We need a bit of fairy dust too to sweeten the pill. Yes, I am a bit cynical!

So, yes, I’m enjoying the Olympics. I’m glad that the opening ceremony was, so far as it could be, a simple (but hugely clever) celebration of the people and not some nationalistic jamboree. And yes, I’ve loved watching the talent and sportsmanship on show. And yes, I’ve sat on the edge of my seat and cheered on the Brits, getting a warm glow when we have beaten the Ozzies or the Yanks or the Frogs . I've loved what I see as the sportsmanship of it all - the drive to win but the acceptance of defeat and joy in someone else's victory. This week we have often seen athletes who expected to win failing to do so. British swimmer Rebecca Adlington was a case in point - she had to accept bronze rather than the expected gold - but in defeat her response was magnanimous and her congratulations of the winners obvious. So very different from what we see in football.  But, at the same time, I do wish we could all keep it in a bit of perspective about how important it is in the great scheme of things. And, of one thing I am quite sure, the sporting health of a nation is not measured by the number of cups, medals or trophies a country wins. It is measured by the amount of everyday participation, involvement and enjoyment by ordinary people on village greens, park football pitches, local bowling greens, leisure centre swimming pools and gymnasiums. It is measured by the amount of money that those who hold the purse strings are prepared to put into local sport and not the billions put in at the top end. It is measured by the sportsmanship and respect shown week in week out on the field of play - not just at some two week long four yearly sportsfest.

Of course,  the pinnacle of sport – the Olympics, the Premiership – is the icing on the cake. But that is all it is – the skin on the custard. It is not the real substance of sport! In the end, should we really get so worked up about a bloke from, say, England swimming one hundredth   of a second faster or slower than a bloke from, say, Kazakhstan or France or  Bolivia? Is this what sport is about?

For me the answer is no – but I’m sure many would disagree!

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