19 August 2008

Triple somersault with flip-flop or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the phenom


The Sport Is A TV Show grumplitude metre took a bit of battering last weekend as your emotionally volatile correspondent harrumphed his way through the beginning of the second biggest sporting event on the planet. Well, never let it be said that I'm consistent, because my annoying humbuggery has been dissipating and is being properly replaced by the glory of sport at its best. You may say it comes with being a part Bill Hicks' "docile masses" , the type who invariably reads the sports pages of a newspaper first and is all too easily amused by the arrival of the circus into town to dwell for too long on serious matters lest it make one's head hurty, but sssshhhh...there's sport on.

On which. Apparently, I love gymnastics. This shocking revelation came to me when I realised that I had been watching the men's team event for a solid hour without having once switched to see if a proper sport was on elsewhere.

I had two prior objections to watching gymnastics, which turned out to be like a pair of of sturdy, reliable, old-fashioned English centre-halves about to face a tricky away tie on the continent. The first is similar to that expressed by comedy person David Mitchell on dressage: "it's one of the sports that is scored by judges." It can be baffling to the naive stranger used to the clean and simple lines of, say, the rugby ruck or the interpretations of football's offside rule. It's like returning from a spell of emigration to find that your old friends have a whole new set of language and references that you'll never get.

The other reason - perhaps more practical - is one not exclusive to gymnastics, but is a potential hurdle in the way of following any sport: the absence of context. I couldn't name a single active gymnast bar Beth Tweddle. I had no idea of the narrative. Which way was up?



The gist of it, one rapidly surmised, was that the Chinese were freakin' awesome. But here was the thing: it didn't matter. It didn't matter that I didn't know why China were supposedly so awesome (except that the pitch of the commentators' voices was about a major third sharper when one of their competitors finished a routine) or what the contest meant in the grand scheme of men's team gymnastic things. In fact, not only did I discover that my ignorance of such issues was no obstruction to enjoyment: it actually aided it.

When you follow a sport particularly closely, you can smoke up a right old haze of backstory and opinion and preconception such that you can't see what's directly in front of you. You can have, as renowned cock(ney) rocker David St. Hubbins once said, "too much fucking perspective".


Seen through pure air, you are confronted with the spectacle. I defy even the most chauvinistic sports fan not to marvel at the beautiful, ever-shifting shapes pulled by these remarkable people as they pull off move after move in such rapid succession on the rings or high bar or pommel horse, each with extraordinary precision. Coupled with this is the tension between the need for such accuracy and the knowledge that one slip could ruin the entire routine (and, in the case of the team event, could sink a whole squad's chances).

So, just like that, I sank back into sport's loving breast, to wallow in Michael Phelps' apparently predestined gold run (including a 100m butterfly final whose proceedings are still not fully processable by the average human brain); in a demi-god jogging the first half of the 100m, pausing and hopping the rest of the way backwards on his weaker leg; in the hollowness left behind by Liu Xiang's inability to race; in Yelena Isinbayeva's world record; and, because I'm as prone to sentimental boobery as Captain Darling, in the tinderbox of emotions that gets exposed to a spark once the race is over.

Maybe to get lost in all this is akin to being a lottery-playing prole from Airstrip One. Maybe Steven Wells is right: that to engage in the Olympics at all is to be Satan's fascist little cock-sucker. My rationalisation, for what it's worth, is to remember that the Olympics is not entirely the same thing as the IOC or the Chinese government or Coca-Cola. Sure, many of the participants are on the payrolls of various sportswear manufacturers, and the main reason for the existence of the IOC is the existence of the IOC. But - and maybe this is like being Winston Smith, his soul white as snow - at it's heart, it's still a bunch of human beings sincerely engaging in athletic competition for its own sake. In the fray, it's person versus person, team versus team. It can be beautiful even when unpleasantly framed.



I don't know if sport can really transcend commerce and nationalism and politics, at least in any permanent way. I suppose the very best that it can do is offer us is a temporary intensified glimpse of the fascinating complexity of the earthbound human. It's something more than a mere distraction from the grey and hopeless world, though. It can be - not is, necessarily, but can be - as revealing and fulfilling and life-affirming as art. It may be played out as an analogy, a somewhat safer version of real life, but how can one be sentient and not feel some connection, however slight? How can one be totally unmoved by it all, by the big improvised, intricate, intimate show?

Photos (1, 2, 3) by Manic.D, Tamara _in london! :D and TT FAUGHAN.

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