The Olympic Games: an event not to be missed
There was a time when I looked forward to the Olympic Games and not just because it meant learning a new Roman numeral every fourth year. It was something in the grandness of it, all the world's countries, all the athletes, in one city, for one time, every four years.
It meant two weeks crammed full of sports, new ones to discover (hello synchronised swimming), ones previously thought only to be a hobby (table tennis? Really?) and ones that, although you followed with interest throughout, only seemed right when taking place at the Olympics (the 100m and the long jump specifically).
A national element inevitably came into it. Pakistan's only medal hope for years was in hockey (they never made squash an Olympic sport which was surely the most evil of the many conspiracies perpetrated against Pakistan) although in Seoul 1988 Hussain Shah won a bronze in boxing. And in the 70s and 80s, during the Cold War, the Games could also be an ideological idling: "See, the free market even wins more medals."
But it was during and after the 1996 Atlanta Games that they became a little less all round, less interesting, and less relevant.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why this was. Maybe it was because Atlanta was actually a long Coke commercial with sport breaking out intermittently.
But most probably it is because there is just so much sport now that the Olympics is the event you squeeze in somewhere, just because it's there and it's familiar and it's been there for so long.
Take this summer, when the European football championships will take place, as will Wimbledon, as will be some pretty serious cricket between England and South Africa.
And there is all the digesting of the seasons and events that have just ended but actually never seem to stop, of football leagues around the world, the Champions League, the French Open, Formula One and maybe, just maybe a Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight. Every year, possibly every month, there is a world cup of something somewhere, so how much do we have left in all this for the Olympics?
If you put to the internet a variant of that query - whether, or why, the Olympics matter - you're likely to be directed to a human tale somewhere, as much about life as about the Olympics, an athlete from an obscure war-torn country, or a competitor without enough money to buy shoes or kit, making it through.
And given that these emerge every four years, they can feel, at best obligatory and at worst, terribly cliched. But they are what they are and seem to go to the heart of what it is about the Olympics that still piques our interest. Top-level professional sport has become a different world to what the rest of us inhabit. That is a sanitised and thus, eerier place without war, without poverty, without normal human life and all the debris of real life.
But some Olympic stories - still top-level sport - are more tangible, about beings from a world the rest of us can recognise and grasp.
The games are also a bigger deal to some nations (and for some sports) more than others, countries which do not yet have the sporting achievements others might take for granted.
The UAE National Olympic Committee announced yesterday that it is aiming to have more than a dozen athletes, besides its football team, in London this year; runners, triple jumpers and hurdlers, wrestlers, weightlifters and shooters. Success, even just simple qualification, can have a far greater ripple effect here than in more developed sporting environments.
And finally, saccharine sweet and obvious as it may sound, there is this. We've become so used to all sport being meaningful and only about definitive conclusions, about winning and not winning, that for a couple of weeks every four years, it makes a nice change for some sport to be purely for the sake of being and no other ostensible purpose.
Like synchronised swimming.
Updated: February 8, 2012 04:00 AM