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Olympic Games London 2012: the Sublime, the Obscure and the Ridiculous
Aah... the Olympics. Every four years the ultimate sporting event draws us in with its glamour, drama, record-breaking performances, triumph, despair and athlete hissy fits, when we should probably be doing the dishes or mowing the lawns instead. Tenser than Masterchef and with more heart-warming, triumph over adversity stories than The Voice it's the world's biggest "reality" TV show, and ratings figures would suggest that we can't get enough of it.
The Olympic Flag. Image by Makaristos from Wikimedia Commons.
I have to say that in recent years my inner Scrooge makes an appearance at Olympics time, unlike in my childhood when I was glued to the TV set watching what little coverage there was, and cheering on the Aussies. I think two weeks of 24/7 glamour sport just isn't as appealing as it's supposed to be, but there's always something to like, or at least discuss, about the Olympics. What follows is my list of the sublime, the obscure and the ridiculous things to watch out for at London 2012.
Sports that have struggled for decent practice and competition spaces usually score big when the Olympics comes to town. State of the art facilities have risen up all over London and surrounds. The Copper Box and Olympic Aquatic Centre boast flexible seating and daring design and the Basketball Arena is reportedly one of the largest temporary venues ever built for an Olympics. If you want history there's always Hyde Park (swimming and triathlon), Lord's Cricket Ground (archery) or Hampton Court, where the cycling time trial will begin and finish.
Special Moments The Olympic Games, despite the highly commercial "bread and circuses" it has become, still manages to produce moments that demonstrate real sportsmanship and the original Olympic ideal of competition. One of my favourite historical Olympics moments is Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila running barefoot to win the 1960 Marathon as the first black african to win a gold medal. At Sydney in 2000 my favourite moment wasn't about winning but the brave and philosophical face presented to the world by Australian athlete Jane Saville at her first media conference after her disqualification from the 20km road walk while leading with only 300m left. And who can forget the likeable Steve Bradbury's triumph in the 2002 Winter Olympics 1000m track speed skating event, after his competitors in the final were involved in a crash? Look out for moments of surprise and unexpected triumph at London in 2012.
You should also keep a close eye on Guor Marial, who has just been given special permission to compete in the Marathon as an independent athlete. Marial is a permanent resident, but not a citizen, of the United States. He was born in what is now South Sudan (the world's newest nation), but fled persecution there at the age of eight after being kidnapped by Sudanese gunmen. South Sudan doesn't yet have a national Olympic body and Marial did not want to compete for Sudan because he lost twenty-eight members of his family to violence and disease during the civil war. His happy ending means that he will be competing, not for South Sudan, but under the Olympic flag. But spare a thought for the other South Sudanese athletes who are unable to compete for their country because of the strict IOC registration rules.
Obscure Sports In Australia at least, you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Olympic Games is all about swimming, athletics and whatever sport in which an Australian is currently likely to win a medal. Modern television and the more general commercialisation of sport has sidelined a range of lesser-known sports, and in the case of previous Olympic sports such as lacrosse, croquet and polo, completely taken them off the Olympics stage. And obviously that's where some of them (live pigeon shooting or 17-man naval rowing boats, anyone?) deserve to be.
But I like the Olympics, not for swaggering, self-absorbed, professional athletes, but for the opportunity to see sports most of us can only see every four years. Where else can you see grown men in silly leotards engaged in public and very personal grappling (Greco-Roman wrestling)? And what about modern pentathlon? A curious mix of pistol shooting, swimming, show jumping, fencing and cross country, it was designed by none other than Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin himself to reflect the reality of life for a nineteenth century cavalry soldier.
My own personal favourite of the less-publicised Olympics sports is handball. It's fast, skilful and entertaining. You might also like to check out badminton, table tennis, slalom kayaking or some of the sailing disciplines.
Small or Lesser-Known Countries If nothing else the Olympic Games has to be the world's best geography lesson. Forget the host nation and the big sporting countries. At the opening ceremony I'm looking for those small teams from countries you've probably never heard of, where the number of officials is often greater than the number of athletes. The ones without cash-for-gold medals incentives, high-tech training facilities and mega-rich athletes. The ones where the original Olympic ideal hasn't become lost in the mire of professional sport and posturing, pampered athletes.
Praia, Capital City of Cape Verde. Image by David Trainer from Wikimedia Commons.
This year the tiny African nation of Benin is sending 2 athletes who will compete in boxing and judo, Cape Verde will have a representative in the 5,000m and Gabon will have a men's football team for the first time. Guam will field a team of eight athletes across a few disciplines.
Wenlock and Mandeville, the 2012 London Olympic Mascots
We have the French to thank for the introduction of Olympic Mascots after Schuss made his (unofficial) appearance at the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968, so it's somewhat ironic that their Channel-sharing neighbours are the ones to have taken the questionable art of Olympic mascots to stratospheric heights of absurdity. I'm never surprised at things that are passed off as creativity by advertising agencies (Emperor's New Clothes, anyone?) but one can only assume that Lord Sebastian Coe is still smarting from his loss to his arch rival, Steve Ovett in the 800m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. How else could he have possibly approved Wenlock and Mandeville?
You may not agree with me but there are some sports that I'm just unable to take seriously. Yes, I'm sure that the participants are highly skilled and finely trained, and that they've sacrificed everything to achieve their dreams (is there an athlete who hasn't?), but that doesn't necessarily make it something I want to watch.
Synchronised Swimming. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
The "artistic" sports are a bit lost on me. Give me a sport where someone runs faster, jumps higher, throws further or is stronger than someone else, sports that have obvious results and are not open to judges' interpretation. I just don't get the plastic smiles, nose plugs and sparkly hair of synchronised swimming or the leaping about with ribbons and balls of rhythmic gymnastics. Next we'll be introducing ballroom dancing (my apologies - that should apparently be dancesport) and baton twirling.
Drug Testing and Specialised Running Suits.
Now here's some irony for you. On the one hand huge amounts of money will be spent on drug testing athletes so they won't have an unfair advantage, and on the other The United States track and field athletes will be wearing suits with aerodynamic dimples (no, that isn't cellulite on their thighs) that mimic a golf ball. The Nike designers claim that the suits could reduce times for the 100m sprint by .023 seconds, and that's certainly enough to be the difference between silver and bronze medals. I thought we'd already been through this kind of controversy with the now banned high-tech swimming suits, but some things never change.