04 September 2011

On the b of hideous bitch goddess

The World Athletics Championships appeared, I admit, to sidle somewhat diffidently into the view of this consumer-citizen. They were on at the wrong time of day, South Korea unaccountably having failed to subscribe to GMT. (Aren't "eurocentric" and "egocentric" awfully similar?) They were also on the wrong station, with Channel 4 acquainting itself with the sport for the first time since Geoff Capes sat in Dictionary Corner in 1986. Whatever one might say about the BBC and its coverage of sport, it still — just about — has its old-time establishment gravitas. Their competitors' tricks and flashes say, "This is entertainment! We'll be back after the break!" The BBC's very BBCness, if nothing else, says, "Dear boy, it's so much more than that..."

And of the stars of the men's 100 metres, two — Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell — were absent through injury. But there was still Usain Bolt. There would always be Usain Bolt. The man who has made the bitter and, indeed, the twisted fall to their knees in praise and gratitude had been in bad form this year. But he walked into the final in Daegu, thus reaffirming the pole-star constancy of the truly gifted in their prime. Or at least it seemed that way until he caused millions of hearts to suspend operations for a horrible moment, then to sink to the gut.

(The pole star isn't constant, either.)

Bolt ran aground on the new(ish) false start rule: an offspring of the previous rule, itself the issue of that most enlightened of creatures: the TV exec. Each athlete used to be allowed one false start. From 2003, the second false start of the race, regardless of the offender, would result in the latter's disqualification — all the better to get the bloody thing over with so we can cut to the ad for the isotonic sports drink that will make your diabetic coma last 33% longer. It's not the first time television has shaped the very rules of a sport; what's remarkable is how rarely it actually makes for a better spectacle for its viewers. Especially for the shortest sprints — the ones whose starts have the finest margins — this was a bit much. In 2009, to ward off the possibility of a runner using up the first false start or getting twitchy accidentally on purpose on subsequent starts to psyche out his adversaries, the IAAF made it a one-strike-and-you're-out deal. Several American states looked on enviously, but the governing body's apparent stance on this issue — if it ain't broke, break it, and keep breaking it — was straight out of Father Ted, and it meant that the best thing to happen to athletics in years could do nothing but beat a wall in frustration.

But there's more to it than that. For one thing, even though the rule may be savage, it is fair, in the sense that everyone knows the rule, and it's the same for everyone. Rules can be big, grey and deeply unsexy, but — let's be obvious about this — to adhere to them is a skill. It doesn't take a golfer to get that. For another thing, my opinion of the rule is just an opinion. Whatever its motivation, it is arguable. Such a severe rule even has a certain dramatic, not to say sadistic, attraction; there is some appeal to subjecting the protagonists to a bit of unreasonable difficulty. If Heracles' labours had included Cleaning the Augean Gutters and Taking the Lovely Nemean Golden Labrador for a Walk, the story would have lost something.

And there's the thing: Bolt's failure to complete the Waiting for the Gun was a great story. It wasn't a sub-9.6 run, but it was still electrifying, albeit at a lower voltage. I'll take low-voltage electrification, even when it feels more like electrocution. This is where things get messy — and by messy, I mean fun. And by fun, I mean quoting-Philip-Larkin fun. Here is a passage whose sentiment I shall proceed to stand on its head until it bursts a blood vessel:
Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world's for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings you what you'll get.
(From "The Life with a Hole in it", googlers.)

Anyone who has followed a sport (or sport generally) for an appreciable length of time develops a taste for how they would like the sport to be practised. The participants will have their own ideas, which may differ wildly from yours. And alongside how you want it to be and how they want it to be is what is: an unbeatable, slow-slow-quick, furiously productive and endlessly absurd theatre, the biggest absurdity of all being our very engagement with it. Naturally enough, we give paramountcy to the first party in this struggle, and lament when the other two fail to come up to its standards. There is always the struggle, though. It's like the harmonics of a plucked string: all three elements play off each other and combine to make the single note. The feeling of awe at Boltesque majesty is just on the other end of the wormhole from the feeling of horror at Boltesque fatal incompetence. And it all comes from that initial engagement, with allowing yourself to be at the sport's mercy. Sometimes it will make you fly; other times it will spear-tackle you straight into a mountain of shite. But the view, man, the view. I don't mean to say that I enjoyed the false start, as such. Or perhaps I do. I'm not entirely sure. I somethinged it, anyway: not somethinged as in not nothinged, but as something ineffable, something I can't quite grasp, nor am sure I want to. It comes down to this: I could have been doing anything else early last Sunday afternoon: sleeping, say, or reading one of AA Gill's delightful restaurant reviews. Instead, I watched something that I hated yet, in a way, loved at the same time. I'm glad I bore witness to the horror show, to have been pulled hither and yon by this many-tentacled monster. When I stop to think of it, I'm always glad to be.

Now, to finally watch that Man Utd-Arsenal game. No spoilers, please.


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