Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, heartbroken and drained, somehow muster the strength to clamber from their lightweight double scull adrift on the still, dark pool at Eton Dorney and into the BBC’s interview area. John Inverdale, sparkling, feminine eyes set in his granite head, thrusts a microphone towards them. Their chests heave with sorrow, their faces forlorn, their dreams dashed.
“Zac, Mark,” starts Inverdale. “What went wrong? Do you feel you badly mistimed your finish? Did you practise finishing in training? What is it about this country and just missing out on gold medals? Will you be back in Rio? Was this your last chance? What’s the mood in the boat like?”
In the Velodrome, Geraint Thomas, fresh from his gold medal in the Team Pursuit, is bantering with Jake Humphreys and Mark Cavendish, not so garrulous as usual, still chastised and resentful of his treatment by the newspapers after missing out on a medal in the Men’s Road Race. “Failure,” one front page screamed. “Missile Misfires,” screamed another. Chants of “You let your country down” have rung around the Velodrome when his face appears on the big screen.
“It’s been great for the women to have their families around them,” says Thomas, still clearly hungover from his celebrations of the previous night, in his soft Welsh lilt. “They’re emotional creatures.”
The headline writers on Derry Street snap into action. “Thomas in sexist slur,” one suggests. A sub-deck is prepared. “Welsh medallist on 24-hour binge,” it reads, followed by: “Cyclist even snubbed OUR anthem.”
The Olympics are not football. The Olympics stand, in the public’s consciousness, as the anti-football. They are about sacrifice and sportsmanship, about dedication and determination. They are populated by athletes who have given up everything for that one shot at glory. They are beautiful when you win and they are brutal when you do not. They are about applauding the man or woman who might be about to beat your hero; they are about cheering the slowest as much as the fastest.
They are sport, or so we imagine, in its purest form. They have none of the cynicism or the arrogance or the surliness or the posturing or the cheating or the gamesmanship that characterise, that afflict, football. The Olympics are not football, and the Olympics make football look bad, and football does not need any help in doing that.
And so the scenes imagined above seem impossible. Hunter and Purchase – in what remains, for me, the single most moving image of London 2012 – were lifted from their boat by Sir Steve Redgrave, their lungs burning and their eyes moist, and they were greeted by Inverdale with a consolatory pat and the words: “You’ve let no-one down”. It is hard to imagine Andy Burton or Geoff Shreeves doing that.
Thomas did go on a bit of a binge – most of the gold medallists have – by all accounts, and did make what was a very obvious gag about women being emotional. That is not a criticism of Thomas, not at all; simply an observation that the Olympics permits a sense of humour, just as it permits a sense of sympathy, whereas football does not.
Footballers who do not win for their nation are treated as failures. They are not greeted by moist-eyed presenters reassuring them that they tried their hardest. Footballers who express personality are ritually sacrificed on the media altar; jokes are wilfully ignored or misunderstood; the slightest whiff of controversy is enough to prick the nose of the pack, and the kill is not long in coming.
The simple explanation for that difference in approach is that the Olympics is an innately epic event; it is once every four years; it showcases sports which do not reward their participants with millions of pounds and countless endorsements, seemingly regardless of ability; that lack of lucre means that Olympic athletes are more humble, more grounded, less detached from society. They are simply dedicated, devoted, superhumans, capable of enduring more so as to run faster, throw further, jump higher.
That manifests itself in a number of ways. We watch sports we are not interested in, simply because they are infused with the significance of rarity: all of these athletes have worked so hard just for this moment. There are no second chances, no return legs, no league games next week, no concentrate on the cup.
And we watch sports regardless of gender: ordinarily, women’s sport is estimated to attract just five per cent of television, radio and newspaper coverage, but at the Olympics (a rough estimate) would have it at about even. Few who watched Jessica Ennis win gold would have thought they were watching a woman, or wondered whether it’d be more exciting if this was a men’s event. They were watching a Briton. That’s all that matters.
But there is more. People resent football. Genuinely resent it. Even those who love it. Kristian Walsh, a writer of this parish, described our affair with football as an “abusive relationship.” It’s hard to think of a better parallel. Football bruises us and hurts us and defeats us, but we always come back for more. Nobody will go into work dreading what their Danish colleague might say because Hunter and Purchase missed out on gold; nobody will take to Twitter to call for their coach’s sacking; nobody will have not watched the Olympic highlights programme because they couldn’t bear to see Team GB lose.
Watching the Olympics is a win-win: you’re delighted if Britain – or whatever your country might be – win, but when Andy Badderley doesn’t make the final of the 1500 metres, you just move on to the next event. We can all pretend we’re moved by the stories of sacrifice, but we only take note of the ones with happy – or brutally sad – endings. Football is not like that. The Olympics is a joyous, elating virus. Football is a condition.
Inverdale, that old Easter Island monolith, said on commentary the other day that “sometimes you love sport and sometimes you hate it, but basically, you just love it.” That is true of sport to an extent, but football to a greater degree. To be a football fan is to hate being a football fan, roughly 50 per cent of the time.
It’s not hard to see why it is resented, by those who love it almost as much as those who do not. Football is bloated, gorged on its own greed and drunk on its self-importance. It takes a grip of the public’s consciousness and it strangles us into submission. Football never lets go. As Mitchell and Webb observed in their peerless pastiche of Sky’s coverage of the national game, “the football will never stop.”
To an extent, this is not football’s fault. Three million more people (23.1m) watched England crash out of the Euros than watched Usain Bolt win the 100m (20.1m). The media has a didactic role – it is to newspapers and television to tell people what is important, as well as to reflect what they believe to be important – but they are governed, by and large, by the law of the market.
Athletics or rowing will not attract column inches until thousands are going to athletics or rowing events on a regular basis. What has happened this summer happens every four summers: we declare our love for all things Olympic, swear off the football for good, but our vows never last. Maybe it will be different because it is on these shores, because we can see it, touch it, but the evidence would suggest not. The Ashes win in 2005 did not lead to a surge in county cricket attendances; if the same happens with cycling, say, then coverage will not improve in the long-term.
And so now football dominates year-round; there is no break, no cessation. The summer, once the preserve of cricket and tennis, is now pre-season tours and transfer rumours; this summer has even provided the distraction of a court case in which the caricature nature of football, and footballers, was laid bare: boorish, crass, thick. The racism charge laid at John Terry, of which he was absolved, simply served to underline the point that football stands apart from the rest of society. It is almost now at the status of guilty pleasure, a soap opera and Jeremy Kyle and Football is everywhere, it is endless, it is unintelligent and it is loud and it is brash and it is ugly.
The Olympics are none of those things, even when they’re in London. The British do not do patriotism well – it never takes much for it to slip into narrow-minded nationalism – but London 2012 has been proud without being jingoistic, celebratory without being smug.
The athletes have helped. They are well-spoken, polite, humble, awed, and we lap it up. They are erudite and articulate and informed. They are diplomatic without delving into the well-mined world of platitude.
There is a class element here, and one that cannot be denied: the rowers and the sailors, in particular, are middle-class. That’s not a bad thing, but when the average standard of sporting interview is a working-class footballer who grew up in one of the worst areas in the country and was removed from school at 16, Anna Watkins – erstwhile of Newnham College, Cambridge – is always likely to be a better talker. If not, as Alan Shearer would say, she would be disappointed with that.
But it is not just class. In fact, it is not even mainly class, or education, or anything like that. Olympic athletes are not like footballers because they are not treated like footballers; it is here that the media must blame itself for allowing the national game to indulge all of its basest desires.
Footballers are resentful of the media, be it print or televised, because the media insist on portraying football through a narrative of crisis and triumph. If you lose, and you are interviewed by someone who keeps telling you how much of a disaster your defeat is, you’re going to be surly.
If you win and you’re asked whether this means you’re now the greatest team in the world, you’re going to clam up. If you know that your performance is going to be picked apart and your future questioned and your immediate sale demanded by a newspaper the next day, you probably won’t want to talk to them.
If you know that an interview you give may well be twisted into something it’s not, that a point punctuated by a swearword will be cast as a foul-mouthed rant, you probably won’t give the interview in the first place.
The Olympians, by contrast, have been met by a plaintiff media. The average BBC interview essentially asks each athlete, in turn, what it is like to be an athlete, and whether the crowd were noisy, and whether they are pleased with their medal and the culmination of their life’s work. The cornerstone question is: “How are you feeling?” The media term for this technique is soft-soaping. Athletes, whether they run or jump or row or kick, whether they are posh or bourgeois or blue collar or white, tend to like a soft-soaping. It’s easy to be articulate, to be grateful and proud, but also humble and reserved, when someone is lathering you up with their words.
No wonder Ezekiel Kemboi, winner of the only event in the Olympics which attempts to discover which human being is most like a horse, apparently greeted the mixed zone by declaring that such “a crowd of journalists makes me happy.” That is not a sentiment ever heard from Ashley Cole.
This phenomenon exists on the macro-level, too. There have been no inquests at these Olympics. The British swimmers underperformed, by all accounts, and no doubt at some point someone will ask why that was, but for the moment, everything is golden and shimmering and pure. Football, the way football is covered, makes such a scenario impossible. Someone is always to blame. It is no surprise that the Olympic sports are more amenable to the idea of allowing journalists and television cameras access, of permitting the chance to show their human sides. Nobody is likely to use the footage to call for their heads.
This is not a defence of footballers, or a criticism of the Olympics. Football can learn a lot from what we have seen in the last week or so; just as, with any luck, the long-term legacy of London 2012 will be increased participation and coverage in and of Olympic sports, hopefully football, and the football media, will see that a more open and more honest approach on both sides leads to more a positive – and more popular – image.
But it is a plea not to judge football, or footballers, by what has been seen these past two weeks. It is easy to condemn the millionaire playboys who provide the opium with which we dull our senses all year, every year. It is easy to say they are too rich, too detached, too arrogant, too surly, too thick, too unpleasant. It is easy to say the Olympics show football in its harsh, true light, that they prove that the national game should not be allowed to smash a pneumatic drill through our consciousness 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But perhaps the Olympians, if they had the money – and surely it is better that the players get the money that has washed into football than the organ-grinders – that footballers do, would be just as surly. Perhaps if they did not have a media offering them a shoulder to cry on, but rather one ready to stab them in the back, they would be reticent to pour their hearts out, to show their human face. We are in an abusive relationship with football. But do not be fooled by the blissful romance of a quadrennial summer fling.