The singer Morrisey denounced the Olympics last week, making the point that while this lavish commercial juggernaut was powering on, “The England outside London shivers beneath cutbacks, tight circumstances and economic disaster.”
Inside the Olympic village meanwhile, journalists were amazed to discover that members of LOCOG (The official Olympic organiser charged with protecting the Games’ commercial sponsors) were going round the urinals in the Olympic village and taping over the name of the manufacturer. Why? In case anyone might think the bog-maker was a sponsor of the Games. On Thursday evening, during Katie Taylor’s golden performance, the BBC cameras swooped over the crowd and spotted Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the privately educated boy famed for his lack of principle. Afterwards, Clegg tweeted his congratulations. As his government basks in the temporary glow of a two week festival that has cost the tax-payer £10 billion, and boasts that it will “inspire a generation of British children to lead healthy lifestyles”, the inconvenient truth that it was this same government who axed the £162 million a year “School Sports Partnership” is ignored. The purpose of that successful initiative? To get school children exercising regularly. The hypocrisy is astounding.
Yet in spite of all the ghastly commercialisation and the use of the Games as a political football, in the Games themselves the human spirit has shone through. For this reason, I found myself glued to the coverage, even the weird stuff like BMX racing, which looks like a group of burglars who have just nicked the kids’ bikes. But, like all the other athletes at the Games, they put their necks on the line: Glory above all. I watched with appalled fascination as the cyclists crashed and smashed their way around the track. In the men’s quarter final, after another massive pile up, only four finished and two were carted off to hospital with suspected fractures.
When Mongolia’s Tuvshinbayar Naidan tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Men’s heavyweight judo semi-final, he screamed in pain, but astonishingly fought on, somehow managing to win the bout. Not only that, but to the astonishment of the medical team, he insisted on fighting the final on one leg, losing by a landslide. He left the arena on a wheelchair, trailing clouds of glory. Two hundred metres into his leg of the 4x400 metres relay heats, American Manteo Mitchell’s left fibula bone snapped. He shrieked out in agony but kept sprinting on his shattered leg, ensuring the US team qualified. “I wanted to just lie down. It felt like somebody literally snapped my leg in half. But I couldn’t let the guys down.” The wheelchair was sent for again.
When American runner Morgan Uceny, the 2011 World No.1, was tripped during the 1500 metre final, it was hard not to feel her heartbreak. Uceny lay on the track long after the race was over, sobbing, her life’s dreams gone in an instant. The Olympics is not a dress rehearsal. In four years, Uceny will be 31. Andy Murray played his greatest ever tennis for free, then wept with joy. When our own Katie sank to her knees at the final verdict (“Is it me?”) and cried, I felt like crying myself.
It is the worldwide sports that bring the greatest moments. No harm to the posh ones like yachting and dressage, but very few Africans are going to be able to afford carbon fibre boats or £3million stallions (the valuation of ‘Utopia’, the gold medal winning dressage horse from Richill). It is interesting to note in this regard that at the Games, 66% of the medals won by the Brits went to public school graduates. This class barrier does not apply to the runners and the boxers, who are the very heart of the Games.
Bolt’s talent has nothing to do with money. He is just a magnificent, gigantic being. Tom Humphries, the doyen of Irish sports journalists, told me once that he had been trackside for the World 100m final.
“What was it like being so close to them?” I asked.
“It was scary Joe. When they came past me, it was like a stampede of horses.”
In his boxing semi-final, Paddy Barnes gave one of the most astonishing displays I have seen by an Irish boxer. Facing the current Olympic and World champion, he boxed both himself and the Chinese man to a standstill. I held my face in my hands as they announced the scoreline of 15-15. When, on the countback, he lost 45-44, I was devastated. Paddy meanwhile simply commented that he had been beaten by a boxer with more ring craft. He is from a very deprived area of North Belfast. I got to know him through a suicide awareness charity he supports in the city. We have played several celebrity Gaelic matches together for the group and he is always the life and soul, bouncing around the field like a duracell bunny, throwing the ball up and batting it with the same hand. A fine young man.
The most beautiful memory from the Games will be Kenyan David Rudisha (above), the great 800m champion. His coach since boyhood is Brother Colm O’Connell, a Corkman. O’Connell joined St Patrick’s High School in Iten, Kenya as a teacher in 1976 and with no background at all in athletics or coaching, has become the most successful distance running coach in history. The dilapidated school has 700 boarders and the diet is modest. Dry bread, bean stew, rice. When a journalist made the trek recently to visit Brother Colm, they ate jam sandwiches for lunch, with Colm describing it as his “little treat”. His runners have won 24 World gold medals and five Olympic Golds. Some years ago he began planting trees in the school yard to honour each gold medallist, but had to stop after the school principal told him the yard was becoming a forest.
Countless runners and coaches have visited this remote Kenyan area to divine the secrets of this success. Colm simply tells them there is no secret. Just perseverance, humility and hard work. His runners are renowned for their serenity. Rudisha glided to the 800 metre gold and world record during the week, appearing not to break sweat. O’Connell insists that they run with rhythm and stay totally relaxed. Pilates and yoga are an important part of daily training and O’Connell’s training regime is not as gruelling as the norm. He is 64 now. This week, as his beloved David was astonishing the world in London, he watched on his flickering TV set at St. Patrick’s, munching on jam sandwiches. Incredibly, he has never been to watch his senior athletes at a major championship, preferring the serenity of Iten. In the documentary film on O’Connell’s life, “Man on a Mission”, presenter Eamonn Coghlan was stunned to learn that Rudisha took daily training sessions with the younger pupils. “There are two worlds for David.” explained the Brother.
“The media and commercial world and his iconic status. David knows he must get back to reality as soon as possible.”
In a few weeks, Rudisha will be back at St. Patrick’s, training the young ones. Everything will remain exactly the same for him. O’Connell just has to figure out where to plant the tree.
When the layers of grubby commerce and politics are peeled away from the Games, inside there is a gleaming white pearl. The human spirit. Not even Coca Cola can stifle it.