By Sachin Nakrani
THERE was pumping of fists and cheers of delight around the Guardian sports desk, and soon the joy had spread across the office, with one woman in particular getting extremely animated way over on the far side. Meanwhile, some of us simply looked on in a state of bewilderment and uncertainty; all this because Great Britain had won a gold medal in showjumping? Seriously, is this what we are getting excited about now?
Welcome to the Olympic effect – that short period of time every four years when sports few people care about, and even fewer have actually participated in, grip the collective psyche. Most of the time we couldn’t care less about four posh men riding horses over small fences, but when there are medals at stake, and at a home Olympics to boot, then suddenly it all matters very much indeed.
And it is not just showjumping. Diving, rowing, sailing, canoeing, gymnastics, Greco-Roman wrestling, all minor sports in this country are suddenly the topics of weighty discussion, the focal points of mood swings ranging from despair to delectation, pushing politics off the front page and, believe it or not, football off the back pages. There has been an intriguing Test match going on between two of the world’s top cricket teams and yet few have noticed because of this Olympic effect. It truly is a remarkable force.
Not for all, mind you. I have been enjoying London 2012 but refused from the outset to take part in the bullshit parade. There are sports I am interested in – principally swimming, boxing, athletics – and it is they I have focused on. I refuse to get emotional over whether or not Tom Daley over-rotated his reverse somersault, or Ben Ainslie sailed to victory in the Finn class, partly out of respect for people who do follow these sports and must roll their eyes whenever the bandwagon heads their way at the start of an Olympics before hurtling out of sight as soon as the closing ceremony has been completed. For them this is not an every-four-years love affair.
For me the Olympics is not an occasion for false jubilation harnessed by patriotic fervour, but instead a time of steady admiration, when the outside world pauses to gaze upon those who have arrived at the final destination of what the X-Factor generation would call their ‘journey’; the narrative that surrounds any person, or group of people, who have decided to test themselves against each other and in front of a watching audience.
The fascination centres on whether they can achieve their own personal ambition in the most pressurised of moments, in the piercing light of public scrutiny, having sacrificed almost everything to do so. This is what makes the Olympics so absorbing, for it lays bare the quadrennial pursuit of a life-defining moment and whichever way the result goes there is something to take from almost every story.
Take Felix Sanchez, for instance, the 400m hurdles champions who collapsed in tears after receiving his gold medal on Monday. This is a man who failed to make the final of the event in Beijing four years ago having won gold at the 2004 Athens Games and then, on the eve of his heats in London, when desperate to seize a final chance at Olympic glory, heard his grandmother had died. At that moment, all of Sanchez’s hard work and self-sacrifice of the past four years could have disintegrated into dust, but instead he battled on and burst through the field to win the final in 47.63 seconds – the exact time the 34-year-old Dominican had run when triumphing in Athens eight years ago. No wonder he sobbed on the podium, the sense of achievement and redemption must have been overwhelming.
I have watched the likes of Sanchez, Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Michael Phelps and Mark Barriga (a tiny Filipino light flyweight who I saw battle to victory at The ExCel Arena last week) with a sense of immense respect, but at no time found myself feeling anything that resembles genuine delight, and to fill that void the mind has instead turned towards grasping the emotions that do authentically flare up when witnessing success and failure in sport.
Firstly, to feel anything on a genuinely personal level, the spectator surely has to have gone on a journey themselves, followed those they are rooting for from a base point, whether that be from a young age or at a stage when the athlete or team in a question was starting out. It is against this principal that I found the fist-pumping and cheering over showjumping so absurd – those involved know neither anything about the sport or the competitors involved and so were losing their composure over Great Britain’s success in what Donald Rumsfeld would describe as an unknown unknown.
The counter argument is that when national teams are involved all bets are off; you are allowed, indeed obliged, to go wild in excitement as well as despair. But again this points to a falsity of emotion – backing someone purely through a patriotic sense of purpose, and fleetingly so in the case of a two-week event such as the Olympics. It is at this point that the focus returns to football, for perhaps no spectator invests more of themselves than those who follow a club associated with the so-called beautiful game. The bond in most cases starts early, lasts until death and, in that time, incorporate a full spectrum of feelings; happiness/sadness, hope/fear, bliss/anger, bafflement/certainty, triumph/despair. They exist because of each other and because of the authentic nature of the relationship between fan and team, one esteemed Wrap contributors Kristian Walsh and Rory Smith have both described as “abusive.”
That much is true and like most abusive relationships, there is a firm sense of love on the part of the victim. However much it hurts, how much we know it is bad for us, we cannot help but go back for more. Such deep feelings also lead to surprise, complex reactions, like the one I experienced after the greatest moment so far in my time supporting Liverpool. Two days after returning from Istanbul, and having caught up on my sleep, watched the homecoming parade and regaled stories of a night filled with wonder and glory, I felt a deep sense of sadness. It was the strangest thing, a dull emptiness where there had been, and should have been, pure ecstasy.
It soon hit me – I was 24-years-old, had been supporting the club since childhood and would do so until my final breath, and the entire experience had already peaked. It would never get better than what took place besides the Bosphorus on 25th May 2005, a night when we all experienced a heightened version of nearly every emotion a supporter can. Nothing that followed could be more joyous or rewarding, and when you contemplate that as a still relatively young man it is natural to feel rather disheartened.
In the cold light of day, I, of course, realised that there was the potential for more to come, more great European nights (which have happened) and, even, that long-desired 19th league title (which so far has not). Besides, being a genuine fan means not getting out when the going is good but staying for the long-haul and absorbing everything, abusive or not, this particular relationship has to offer. Even those who claim to have walked away remain attached, either through memory or spirit.
This is what the Olympic experience, for me at least, cannot provide. These Games have been absorbing, a testimony to personal ambition and sacrifice, but nothing on show has led to an igniting of emotions in the manner that has been on show elsewhere. Call it what you like – a mass awakening to minority sports, a new-found national identity, but I neither get it or fully accept it.