03 August 2012

Olympics: the best and the worst

The Olympic Games bring out the absolute best in people – and also the worst, says Susan Erasmus.


The Olympic Games bring out the absolute best in people – and also the worst, says Susan Erasmus.

I have been glued to the screen for the last few days, ignoring the ringing telephone, while I've been watching unlikely things such as swimming heats and qualifying rounds for women's weightlifting and archery.

I have been crying with the Russian woman gymnastics team and rejoicing with Mongolian judo fighters. Then there were volleyball, table tennis and boxing.

I danced with joy at the triumph of Chad le Clos over Michael Phelps in the men's 200m butterfly. And Cameron van der Burgh's victory. And the amazing gold medal in the rowing on Thursday. I've watched that race four times and I still don't know how they did it.

It helped that I was at a pub quiz on Tuesday night with others who were as happy as I was at Le Clos's fabulous – and narrow – win. I was wondering who it was who was shouting so loudly, and then I realised it was me. Joy is simply contagious, as shown by Le Clos's father, whose interview after his son's victory has now gone viral on the internet.

Under normal circumstances I would rather clean out cupboards and wash my car than watch fencing, or rowing, but there's something about the Olympics that clothes everything in a magical aura. I almost said 'golden' there, but then you might accuse me of being too obvious.

It might be the fact that it only takes place every four years or that so many countries are taking part. It is a spectacle without comparison in which individual and national triumphs and disasters are played out on a world stage in an unpredictable and unscripted fashion.

It is about grace, excellence, strength and endurance.

Anything can happen – and it does. Ask the British Gymnastics team who had their medal changed from silver to bronze. And the Japanese who moved up from fourth place to take the silver. Ask the Russian female gymnast who fell almost flat on her face at the last crucial moment.

The British tend to favour underdogs, which turns them into interesting and unpredictable spectators. And boy, are these Olympics well-organised. I am yet to see a glitch of any kind.

As a species we humans are both competitive and co-operative. And the Games indulge both these tendencies. We savour individual excellence, and celebrate effective teamwork. It gives us an opportunity to stand quietly and honour grace, brilliance, strength and endurance – not only of the athletes themselves, but of everyone involved in getting them there: parents, trainers, friends, sponsors and relatives.

And make no mistake – even the seemingly worst athletes at the Games are actually really good at what they do. A million times better than you or me. It's just that by comparison to the gold medallists they look rather shabby.

I am under no illusion that it is a fair contest in all aspects. You might have the potential to be the world champion in fencing, but if you were born in Burkina Faso you would never find out. Small countries send small teams of athletes. Poor countries don't have all that much money to spend on sporting development – especially if they're embroiled in civil wars or other disasters. They also don't send people to take part in team sports, but rather in single events that require little equipment, as it's simply cheaper.

We all love watching someone triumph against all the odds. Someone who had few of the advantages others take for granted, but who is just simply so good, they get to the top because of it. It makes us feel that we can achieve things in our own lives which look impossible. Maybe that's what the Olympics are all about: teamwork, hope, love and charity.

But before I get lost in warm fuzziness, there are little reminders that humanity has a darker side: people who will do absolutely anything to win, including match-fixing and doping, people who are ungracious losers, and people who use this international platform only to further their own selfish interests in some way. In a world which overvalues winning, it's inevitable that some people could be tempted to take shortcuts to victory, even if it turns out to be an empty one.

But how could we celebrate human excellence if we didn't have a grim alternative against which to measure it? And unfortunately, we're never short on instances of those.

Now you'll have to excuse me: I simply have to go and see what's happening in the table tennis heats.

(Susan Erasmus,, July 2012)





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