I am seizing a few minutes of a pause in the Olympics to write this piece, because for the last 16 days I have been spending almost all my time watching the events. I know it is fashionable, especially among people who abhor sports, to denigrate the Olympics as a corrupt, elitist, disgraceful outfit, and I don’t disagree with much of this criticism.
But for the moment at least I am not concerned with any of this: I am watching the races. When I was a kid I used to run, jump and so on myself, and was rather good at it, at a purely local level. At least I was good enough to know that I was never prepared to do the kind of training that would have been necessary to become really good.
So, after starting work as a reporter and being required to spend my Saturdays covering local sports and collecting their results, I gave up competing and playing. But the fever for sports was embedded deep within me, and in the 70 years that have since passed I have aways turned first to the sports pages of newspapers, have followed events like Wimbledon, the Olympics, World Cups of cricket and Rugby, five-day cricket test matches and 20-over bash-and-run games, and seven-a-side Rugby, the occasional World series of baseball and Stanley Cup finals, following all of these avidly without cease.
Right now, as I am prepared to tell anyone willing to listen, I am spellbound by the spectacle of these magnificent young people competing with every ounce of their being to become the best in the world. For me, this is as beautiful a spectacle as anything done by human beings, and I won’t hear anyone arguing to the contrary.
In particular, of course, I love the running events above everything, and have been sitting spellbound before the races run by Ethiopians and Kenyans, men and women, as they have in some cases so thoroughly demolished the rest of the world as to have won their races by as much as 150 yards.
(I have to pause here to watch the opening of the Decathlon, whose winner normally is considered the world’s greatest athlete. The first event, the 100 yard run, was a record for Damian Warner, the young Canadian, getting his 10-event programme off to a rocking start. This event has been won by storied athletes of the past: Jim Thorpe, Bob Matthias, Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner, Daley Thompson, and we have had at least one good one in Canada, Michael Smith, who is working these Games as a CBC commentator. Now here come the starters in the first heat of the 5,000 metres for men, won at the last Olympics by Mo Farah, of Britain [a transplanted Somalian] along with the 10,000 metres which he has already won again at these Games. Everyone is expecting him to knock off this year’s 5,000 with his usual effortless ease and superb finishing kick. A master strategist, who tends to tuck himself in behind to let others do the early work, Mo on this occasion almost came to grief as, 250 yards from the finish, a runner alongside of him fell and almost brought him down. Never mind: he qualified for the final.)
It is the 24-tear-old Ethiopian woman Almaz Ayana, who has especially captivated me in these Games so far. A small woman, compact, attractive, just short of being thin, somehow or other she packs into that tiny frame the capacity to run so fast over long distances as to smash records that have been held for almost quarter of a century. Equipped with the most beautiful, graceful running style, it is poetry in motion to watch her, she set out to run away from the 10,000 metres field, and left them laps behind, repeating the dose in her lap of the 5000 metres event.
This graceful economical running style seems to be common among the Ethiopians, and I am willing to argue that to watch them is a pleasure equal to what others find in attending an orchestral concert, or opera, or the like. The effort involved in these races is so great that it has brought me to tears from time to time, tears of pure pleasure, and if that puts me firmly in the class of jock, so be it. And to think that when I was a kid my coaches used to tell me that the blacks were excellent at sprints, but hopeless over the longer distance. Now, black people from east Africa totally dominate longer distance races. That they never did so when I was a kid was because they were all living under the strict, arrogant and racist control of colonial authorities, who never gave them a chance to compete with their masters. If politics has entered into world athletics, this is where it came in first and not before time.
Before I get back to watching the Games I have to say a word for the superb Fijian seven-a-side Rugby team, who won their gold medal final match by the incredible score of 43-7, managing in the 20 minutes of the game to score seven tries as they tore Great Britain to pieces in the most enthralling exhibition of running, passing and power anyone could ever see. It reminded me of the first Fijian sportsmen I ever saw, when in New Zealand we were visited by Fijian teams that could kick goals with bare feet, and hit sixes in cricket with the most cheerful abandon and incredible eyesight. And when the game finished, they formed into a choir and delighted us with their haunting melodies and glorious voices.
Apart from anything else, I am simple enough to take pleasure in seeing young people come from every corner of the world to compete in these events; I remember the delight that Mutaz Essa Barsheim, a young man from Qatar took in his second placing in the high jump that was won by the Canadian Derek Drouin. Among its other virtues, sports teaches us how to lose gracefully, as so many competitors have shown how to do his week.
There are far more delights I have taken, including a run just achieved by a delightful Kenyan half miler, Eunice Sum, but I really don’t have time to go into them all. (Wow! I just heard the announcer say, “I think it is Santiusti, Rodriguez and Chichota.” That’s diversity, fellers!).
As they say in the sporting world, I can’t wait for the 1500 metres, the greatest event of them all.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, all you sports denigrators.