Going for Gold

Groan…I must not watch rhythmic gymnastics…I must not watch rhythmic gymnastics… Only five days into the marathon which is the 2000 Olympics coverage, and the strain is beginning to tell. Thanks to the ten-hour time difference, I have spent the past week being lulled to sleep by the sound of coxless fours on Radio 5, and woken up by cheers from the badminton arena. My days are spent pouring over collated table tennis results on the Reuters news feed at work, and cheering as Britain passes the Bulgarians in the medal table. Thank heavens it’s only once every four years.

At least it’s in Australia – it would have been ten times worse had it been in Manchester, who were defeated in the final round of voting for the honour of staging the games. I still treasure the memory of the crowd in Manchester spontaneously bursting into Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as the news of their rejection came through. All credit to the Aussies though, for running what seems so far to have been a strikingly well-organised event: I doubt Manchester would have done quite so well, even in Moss Side would have offered ideal territory for the shooting competitions. Sawn-off shotgun from the prone position, anyone?

It’s weird how the Olympics capture such a hold on the collective imagination, when few of the sports which are popular the rest of the time take a full part: no golf or motor racing at all, while the top competitors in football and baseball don’t take part. But for me, the joy is less to be seen in these events, than in the ones which you rarely or never get to see: they flower briefly, enjoying a day in the sun, then vanish for another four years. Would you know what “double-trap” was if we hadn’t won the gold medal in it? It’s a miracle we manage to compete in shooting at all, since post-Dunblane, possession of anything much bigger than a pea-shooter has been forbidden. Similarly in gymnastics where the British women had to deal with the problem of possessing actual breasts, unlike most of the other competitors.

Which brings me to beach volleyball, which is the complete opposite, being a sport in which silicone implants appear to be part of the rigorously enforced, minimalist dress code. It’s not a game we can expect the Afghan Taleban to be submitting a team for in the near future. This Olympic version of Baywatch, all teeth, tans and tits, also features the best-named pairing of the Games so far – or at least, the couple most likely to be mistaken for a lesbian porno double act – the magnificently-monikered American duo of Holly McPeak and Misty May. Although for sheer class, you can’t beat another fog-influenced American, swimmer Misty Hyman.

Still, you can’t deny that beach volleyball actually is a sport, unlike certain I could mention – let’s just say that anything where marks are given for “artistic impression” and the like are on dubious grounds, at least until oil-painting and ballet become Olympic events as well. The decisions over which sports are in, and which are out, seem almost random: it’s clearly nothing to do with popularity (Graeco-Roman wrestling, anyone), but gratifyingly, neither are commercial or televisual potential apparently anything to do with it. Badminton is in; squash isn’t. Go figure. But who wants to watch athletics anyway? A sport with all the spectator appeal of horse-racing, as far as I’m concerned — the sprinters take three times as long to get ready as they do to race, while you might as well tune all but the final lap of the long-distance races. And as for race walking…what the hell is that all about? Hey, make it a three-legged race and have done with it. Me, I’ll be eagerly tuning in to the climax of the sail-boarding instead – that’s real sport…