x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Olympics: It was all fun and games in London

As the English capital prepares for life after the party, Paul Radley runs the rule over the Olympics, from proud parents to plucky participants, from sore losers to poor losers

Dubai-based Serbian swimmer Velimir Stjepanovic finished sixth in the men's 200m butterfly final. Paul Kitagaki Jr / Zuma Press
Dubai-based Serbian swimmer Velimir Stjepanovic finished sixth in the men's 200m butterfly final. Paul Kitagaki Jr / Zuma Press

As the English capital prepares for life after the party, Paul Radley runs the rule over the Olympics, from proud parents to plucky participants, from sore losers to poor losers.


Best race: 200m butterfly final

It was the race which had everything. The all-time great Michael Phelps dethroned in his favourite event by the barely perceptible margin of 0.05 seconds, falling to an adorable new champion, Chad le Clos, who then wept his way through his national anthem.

Velimir Stjepanovic, an 18-year-old gap year student from Dubai, turned in third place at halfway and eventually finished sixth.

And a flotilla of proud parents.

"It feels like I have died and gone to heaven," said Bert le Clos, Chad's father. "Whatever happens in my life now it will be plain sailing."

The Stjepanovices were glowing, too. "When Velimir stood on the blocks in the final, he looked like a child standing next to giants," said father Milan.

"Everyone is about 15 centimetres taller than him. Their feet are all size 48; Velimir is size 42."

Worst turnout: UAE's opening ceremony

The UAE took their biggest ever contingent of Olympians to London 2012. You would not have known it from the opening night perambulation, however.

Usually everyone wants a piece of the opening ceremony. Danny Boyle's extravaganza was so hotly-anticipated, even Queen Elizabeth was happy to play a cameo role.

Yet the scheduling of the actual sport around it meant many were forced to miss out. Mahdi Ali, the coach, ordered the UAE football team to give it the swerve.

Mubarak Salem chose to focus on his swimming event the morning after, but he could not sleep anyway as his room in the Athlete's Village was so close to the main stadium.

To make matters worse, the diddy UAE contingent were followed immediately by the United States. "I think we were only on the TV for around six seconds - then a whole army followed us," said Humaid Al Derei, the Abu Dhabi judoka who was one that did make it to the stadium.

Best coach: Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher

Plenty of choice in this category. For every great Olympian, there is a sage mastermind in the background.

The brains trust of Britain's cycling team are so good, they are now subject to more conspiracy theories than a moon landing.

And Bob Bowman can live happily ever after, following the retirement of a swimmer called Phelps, whose rise he had overseen since he was 11.

Not all tutors, however, have put their wards up in the own house (or palace), funded all their training needs, then cooked them a barbecue dinner every night.

It was no wonder Sheikh Ahmed lived every moment of the British shooter Peter Wilson's gold medal campaign in the double trap at the Royal Artillery Barracks given the investment he had made in him.

The secrets of their unlikely alliance are going to remain just that.

"It is like fight club," Wilson said. "The first rule of fight club: you don't talk about fight club."

Worst myopia: John Leonard, USA

"We want to be very careful about calling it doping," John Leonard, the executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association was quoted as saying of the rapid progress of the Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.

So not doping then?

"The one thing I will say is that history in our sport will tell you that every time we see something, and I will put quotation marks around this, 'unbelievable', history shows us that it turns out later on there was doping involved."

His comments were ludicrously short-sighted and provoked an ugly contretemps between the two leading nations at the Games.

What were we supposed to think, therefore, if a United States swimmer then went and did something similarly unbelievable?

When Katy Ledecky ruined the party at the Aquatics Centre by beating the home heroine Rebecca Adlington in the 800m freestyle final, she swam over 20 seconds faster than her personal best of a year earlier.

Most fair-minded people regarded the 15-year-old American as a new star and a deserving champion.

However, employing the Leonard model of thinking, and let's put this in quotation marks just for John, had she "doped"?

Best Emirati athlete: Omar Abdulrahman

Pickings were generally lean for the UAE's Olympians, but the football players did manage to win themselves a number of new friends.

Although they ended the tournament with just the one point, garnered in a draw against Senegal, they had plenty of highlights to show for their efforts.

Chief among them was the classic opening goal in the first half of the first game against Uruguay. Ismail Matar, on his belated debut on the big stage, scored it, but it was the creator who caught the eye.

Omar Abdulrahman, the Al Ain player, was little known beyond the shores of the Emirates until the Olympics. Now if any clubs are in the market for a willowy playmaker with an eye for a pass and more flair than the 1970s, they know exactly where to look.

Worst homesickness: Khadija Mohammed, UAE

Everyone just assumes performing at an Olympics is the dream ticket, the realisation of a lifetime of endeavour, and a decent two-week holiday to boot.

However, there is a certain amount of pressure which floats around every Olympic Park, too, centred mainly on young athletes who are experiencing such things for the first time in their lives.

Khadija Mohammed took on a sizeable burden when she accepted the invitation to become the first female weightlifting representative from the UAE at an Olympics.

She seemed to be enjoying herself when she was waving a mini version of the nation's flag at the opening ceremony.

A week later, though, she was tearfully requesting to be put on a flight back to her friends and family in Dubai.

Najwan El Zawawi, her coach, and Emirates Weightlifting officials talked her in to staying. And thus the 17-year-old schoolgirl became an Emirati weightlifting pioneer.

Best expert: Ian Thorpe, swimming

Australia suffered by the fact their best performer at London 2012 did all his work on the pundit's sofa rather than in the swimming pool.

Ian Thorpe bungled his bid to qualify for the Games after ending his retirement last year. That might have been a loss for his country, but it was a treat for television viewers, who were thus afforded the lucid insight of the five-time gold medallist.

The Thorpedo's style is so far removed from the say-what-you-see analysis favoured by many legends turned experts for hire. He explains rather than observes, and does a neat line in good sense, too.

His most valuable contribution was to provide a well-informed voice of reason when the Ye Shiwen furore broke. "The debate should not be about names and it should not be about nationality," he said.

Quite right.

Worst self-delusion: Wallace Spearmon, USA

The trouble with being a contemporary of the unadulterated legend that is Usain Bolt is that his "rivals" feel they have to try to keep up with him in the bravado stakes as well as the running race. Either way, it is an object lesson in self-delusion.

As Bolt worked out all his stresses and strains before the start of the 200m final by chatting up the volunteer marking the lane next to his, then giving knuckles to the one in his own lane, the rest of the field vied for an inch of the limelight.

Yohan Blake, with his eerily long fingernails, did his customary beast impression, while Wallace Spearmon, the United States sprinter, started pointing at himself, shouting: "This is my time, let's go, baby."

Really? You really think this is your time? Sorry to break it to you, Wallace, but your time is 19.90 seconds, which is 0.58 slower than the Lightning Bolt. That will get you fourth place, so settle down.

Best ovation: Sarah Attar, Saudi Arabia

This Games broke Olympic attendance records. It was amazingly well attended, but then we could all see that coming: the British do love their sport, after all.

When Mo Farah and Usain Bolt won their races, the Olympic Stadium emitted a sonic boom. Britain's cyclists and then the Brownlee brothers in the triathlon could not hear each other when they were shouting instructions from a yard away, such was the noise coming from the crowds.

When Katie Taylor was fighting in the women's boxing for Ireland, the sound at the ExCel Arena was measured as being greater than that of a jumbo jet taking off.

The Olympic movement was not set up exclusively with the winners in mind, though, and the London 2012 crowds had a keen grasp of Pierre de Coubertin's ideals about it being the taking part which is important.

The significance of Sarah Attar becoming the first female athlete to represent Saudi Arabia at the Games was appreciated by all 80,000 present, who stood and cheered her home 40 seconds behind the winners of her 800m heat.

Worst losers: Badminton

The majority of Olympic sports are minority ones, afforded a two-week window to sell themselves to the wider world once every four years.

Some nailed it at London 2012. Cycling was already in the ascendant in the UK following Bradley Wiggins' Tour de France success. After Sir Chris Hoy et al bolstered that triumph, it is now boom time.

Triathlon, too. The crowds to watch the men's event - with free admission - were lining some of the Hyde Park course 50 deep to watch the Brownlee brothers take gold and bronze for the home nation.

Others botched it badly. Badminton had a nightmare. Fair enough, it may be fun to play. And neither is it too bad to watch.

However, if you invent rules where the players can end up playing to lose, it sort of goes against the point of sport. Badminton's governing body did well to disqualify those who did not try to win, but the die had already been cast.

pradley@thenational.ae

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