Not bad for ‘just a small island’

It was back in September 2013 that a Russian spokesperson is reputed to have commented about the UK, “. . . just a small island … no one pays any attention to them“. Actually more than 6200 islands, although only 267 are permanently inhabited.

team gbHowever, based on Team GB’s success at Rio2016 perhaps we are not so ‘small’ after all. After winning a record haul of medals (more than won at our home London Olympics in 2012) British athletes from all competitions can hold their heads proudly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not particularly interested in the increasingly over-enthusiastic [nationalistic] commentaries and responses that accompany any gold medal success—whether for Team GB or any other country. Too much unfurling and waving of flags for my liking. A vexillologist’s paradise nevertheless.

In many ways, I wish it were possible for competitors to participate as individuals, not under their national flags. Nevertheless, I do accept that it’s this aspect that attracts public attention and increases interest in the Games.

And all this celebration of rankings. So what if Team GB came second in the medal list, even better than China? Better we should ask whether our athletes acquitted themselves in their respective competitions. After all, since 1997 there has been a massive investment in elite sport, primarily with support to UK Sport from the National Lottery, and that has permitted athletes to concentrate 100% (or almost so) on their sports.

Team GB’s 374 athletes participated in 201 events over 31 of the 39 Olympic sports (this classification taken from the official Rio2016 website). And they came away with medals in 22 of those sports, for a total of 67 medals, of which 27 were gold!

rio medals

It’s interesting to note that although most sports were split into men’s and women’s events, there were three sports with a mixed event (badminton, sailing, and tennis), one event was entirely mixed, men and women competing against each other (equestrian), and two events (synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics) entirely for women.

The Olympics is an interesting mix of sports, disciplines and events. Personally, I do not agree with either tennis or golf being Olympic sports, even though Team GB came away with gold medals in both men’s events. For many Olympians, the games held every four years are what they train and aim for.  They are the focus of all their goals and dreams. Yes, there are World Championships, and regional ones (like the European Championships) and the Commonwealth Games, held at regular cycles. But the Olympics are something special. You only have to witness the reaction of successful athletes to winning a medal, especially if it’s gold, to appreciate just what participating in the Olympic Games means. A week after winning at Rio, Andy Murray was participating in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio where he was defeated in the final by Marin Cilic of Croatia. This was just another tournament on the ATP Tour and, it seems, the Olympic Games were squeezed into his busy schedule. The same can be said for golf. Gold medal winner Justin Rose will no doubt be off playing another tournament somewhere on the professional golf circuit. Notwithstanding the above, I did appreciate the commitment of both Murray and Rose in competing in the Games, and what it meant to win. I just happen to believe that other sports are more worthy of inclusion. I cannot understand why squash has never become an Olympic sport. But we do have sport climbing to look forward to in Tokyo.

One hundred and twenty-nine British athletes won a medal (individual and team). But what is particularly remarkable is that nine Olympic champions from London2012 successfully defended their titles (or double champions in the case of track cyclist Laura Trott and long-distance runner Mo Farah, or triple champion in the case of track cyclist Jason Kenny). The men’s four in rowing retained the title for the fifth successive Olympics (though not with the same team members!), cyclists in three Olympics, and sailors in the Finn class in five. The BBC Sport Rio 2016 website tells the full story.

So, well done to Team GB athletes—and all Olympians—successful or not in terms of medals won. Many personal best times, etc. were surpassed. In swimming and cycling, Team GB athletes also broke world records.

Of course there were the various controversies. Boxing was not without its usual crop of ‘bad’ decisions. I guess that will always be the case in sports that are judged rather than measured (fastest, longest, highest, etc.). Should Team GB’s 4 x 400 m team have been disqualified? There was no visual evidence to fall back on—just the word of a judge. Conspiracy theories abound, because Team GB’s disqualification elevated the Brazilian quartet into the final. Does it really matter? That’s how the decision was called.

Disagree and appeal. Accept. Move on.

211px-2016_Summer_Olympics_logo.svgBut let’s also celebrate, in particular, the many fine examples of the spirit of the Olympics. Rafaela Silva, the gold medal winning judoka from Rio’s City of God favela. The Singaporean swimmer, Joseph Schooling, who defeated Michael Phelps in the 100 m butterfly to win his country’s first gold medal. Fiji winning their first ever medal, gold, in the Rugby Seevens. The Philippines silver medallist in weightlifting, Hidilyn Diaz. But also, who can forget Michael Phelps winning his 23rd gold medal?

But perhaps the epitome of the Olympic sportsmanship shone forth in the women’s 5000 m heats, when Nikki Hamblin from New Zealand and Abbey D’Agostino from the USA fell and helped each other to finish the race. Both were reinstated in the final, but D’Agostino was unable to compete. Hamblin did run, but came last, hobbling over the line obviously still suffering from the injury picked up during the heats.

It was, of course, disappointing to see so many empty seats at most of the Olympic venues. Rio residents didn’t appear to embrace the Olympics as was the case in London, because of the cost of tickets presumably, but also because many of the sports simply do not have a following in Brazil. This was in stark contrast to London 2012 when it was impossible to get hold tickets. This does not bode well for the Paralympics that begin in two weeks.

Who will forget, however, the majesty and magnificence of the Rio de Janeiro backdrop to many of the events, in particular the TV shots over the Christ the Redeemer statue to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Lagoa) far below where the rowing and canoe events were held.

The view of Lagoa from the Christ the Redeemer statue, where the rowing and canoe events were held.

With the Sugar Loaf always in view, the long stretches of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Rio had it all. And despite the political and economic shocks that Brazil faced, the Rio Olympics seem to have been a great success. Was the athletics program debased because of the absence of the Russian athletes? Probably not, especially if their clean status could not be guaranteed. The Russian Federation was well-represented in other sports, and won its fair share of gold medals.

I’ve not heard of many—if any—actual doping incidents, although the organisation of the anti-doping organization has apparently not been held in high regard. Some examples of doping may yet come to light.

So, we move on to Tokyo 2020. Will Super Mario still be in office?

I was inspired . . .

That’s it. Games over. The countdown to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 has begun.

I feel kind of deflated today. I’m not a sportsman by any stretch of the imagination, although a few years before retiring I did become quite a badminton and swimming enthusiast. I haven’t continued either since returning to the UK, but do try to take a daily walk – weather and inclination permitting – of varying length between a couple of miles and about seven maximum.

But the past two weeks have seen me take my sports exercise vicariously through many hours of TV coverage on the BBC. I haven’t been able to watch the Olympic Games since 1988 (when they were held in Seoul), and the time difference with the UK didn’t make for the most convenient viewing. But during my 19 years in the Philippines, there was only scant coverage on the local TV channels, and very selective at that, and often only several months after the event (always interspersed of course with a plethora of adverts). The national sport of the Philippines is basketball. While I can and do appreciate the great athletic prowess of the top basketball players, the sport seems rather pointless to me. There again, I’m sure many cannot understand my interest in and love of cricket (it was once an Olympic sport!).

The slogan of the London 2012 games was Inspire a generation. And yes, I can say that they have inspired a(n older) generation – ME!. It’s hard not to marvel at the focus and dedication of the athletes participating in the Games. Clearly winning an Olympic medal of whatever colour takes dedication to the exclusion of almost any other aspect of what most of us would regard as a normal life. The days when one could turn up for a few hours training every now and then and go on to win a medal at the Olympic Games are long gone. It’s a full-time commitment, supported by coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists, and managers. Let’s not forget that many of the athletes are full-time sportsmen and women, although few enjoy the financial rewards of the USA basketball players for example, or can expect the sponsorship that an athlete like Usain Bolt must already receive; or the tennis players for whom the Olympics was just another fixture on a busy schedule of international tournaments – although this one had no prize money to offer, just the glory of winning an Olympic medal (nevertheless, well done Andy Murray).

The TV coverage here in the UK was, for the most part, of a high standard, and thank goodness we didn’t experience the Games NBC-style, so I’m led to believe, with incessant advert breaks and some of the major events (such as the Men’s 100 m sprint) not even broadcast live! Some of the camerawork could have been better – but that wasn’t the fault of the BBC, since the images were, I believe, provided by a special Olympics broadcast company. Although quite a number of the presenters were below par, Clare Balding was certainly the best of those commentating – on several events including the swimming and equestrian events. Ian Thorpe, the Australian multi-gold medal swimmer was also a great addition to the BBC team, as was Michael Johnson, the 200 and 400 m sprint gold medalist from the USA. Many others appeared to have been instructed to fill every quiet moment with incessant and repetitive chatter, instead of letting the images speak for themselves (but I already posted a blog about my irritation in this regard). And some of the ‘insensitive’ questioning of competitors who had ‘failed’ to win gold, or any medal for that matter, was ridiculous. I half expected someone to answer How the f*** do you think I feel?

So what did inspire me? On the mainstream channels there was a focus on sports in which Team GB was expected to do rather better: rowing, cycling, and athletics. But there was also good cover of the various equestrian events (dressage was a revelation – especially Charlotte Dujardin’s choice of ‘patriotic’ music for her gold medal routine in the individual event, including the theme from the World War II movie The Great Escape and Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory; given that our closest rivals and multi-winners were the Germans, I wonder whether this music was chosen on purpose). But I did get to watch some of the hockey, canoeing (something I’d never really seen before), volleyball (although beach volleyball – bikinis notwithstanding – doesn’t interest me), judo, taekwondo, and gymnastics, but very little weightlifting or Graeco-Roman wrestling.

But you have to marvel at the inspiring performance of the rowers and cyclists (both road and track – especially Bradley Wiggins road time trial gold a week after winning the Tour de France), the beauty of seeing Mo Farah take the 10,000 and 5,000 m distance events (the only ones which actually had me on my feet yelling at the TV!), the awesome Jamaican sprinters, and the USA Women’s 100 m relay team who broke a 26 year old record. Perhaps the best performance on the track was that of Kenyan David Rudisha who led from the front in the Men’s 800 m and even broke the world record, something that is normally achieved only at the regular ‘professional’ athletics events where a pace-setter is employed to ensure that fast times are clocked. Long jump champion Greg Rutherford from Team GB had slipped under the radar; once he’d posted his winning leap there wasn’t much competition. In the pool the USA team was awesome, but the performances of the young Chinese swimmer Shiwen Ye, Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte,  and American Katie Ledecky, 16, 15 and 15 respectively, stand out. Michael Phelps – what more can I say?

I learnt a lot about sports I knew little about before the Games. I can now wax lyrical about strategy in the cycling keirin, or the finer points of dressage’s piaffe, passage, extended trot and flying changes. But I still find it odd at the end of a BMX cycle race to discover that the participants are not 10-year-old kids, but men and women in their 20s and even 30s; and taekwondo is lost on me. Surprisingly I found the women’s boxing interesting, and Team GB gold medalist Nicola Adams is surely an inspiration to anyone interested in sport – what a smile and bright and breezy attitude.

Team GB dominated the cycling, rowing and boxing events, and had several significant wins in the athletics track and field. After the Beijing 2008 games, the track cycling authorities decided to limit participation in each event to one entry per nation – apparently because of the domination of Team GB. Well, we still dominated, taking seven of the 10 gold medals on offer.

And if you want to find out any statistics at all about who won what and how, this BBC link provides a medals table and a complete breakdown sport by sport. Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal has published an alternative medals list, awarding gold to nations that came last in its events. Apparently Team GB topped that list. Not surprising really, given that Great Britain & Northern Ireland were allowed to field teams in all events, as host nation, even if they had not met the Olympic qualifying standard.

Many of the venues were spectacular: the velodrome, the aquatics center, the main stadium itself. It was inspiring to hold the equestrian events at Greenwich (behind the Naval College, and along the prime meridian) from where the whole of London could be seen during the cross country eventing. And so many others – such as the road cycling, the triathlon, and the marathon all passed many of London’s skyline iconic buildings. What a backdrop for these different sports.

And finally, what about the Opening and Closing Ceremonies? I already posted a blog about the Opening Ceremony. I thoroughly enjoyed that event. And last night’s Closing Ceremony was equally spectacular – but different. I read one review this morning that said there had been no ‘wow’ moment. I think there was, and that was the video of John Lennon joining the schoolchildren singing Imagine. It was totally unexpected, sent shivers down my spine, and brought a tear to my eye. You can watch the official video on YouTube.

I have to say that I even thought the Spice Girls did their bit rather well, and it was amazing to see and hear the reaction of the audience in the stadium to the Freddie Mercury segment, as though he were actually performing. Here’s a link to the full ceremony on the BBC Sports website.

I didn’t visit London during the games, so am unable to comment firsthand on what everyone is talking about: the welcome and enthusiasm of the 70,000 volunteers or Games Makers, as well as the excellent security arrangements provided by the armed services.

Yes, we’ve seen a lot of the Union Jack these past 17 days, and heard our national anthem sung – with gusto – rather a lot. And what’s more, the real winner perhaps was the weather (after such a bleak and depressing build up to the Games). So the Games brought a smile to our faces, and made our hearts swell with pride – if even for just a short time. London – you did us proud. Well done!

What will Rio 2016 bring us? Well, golf will be included (why, for heaven’s sake) but windsurfing has been dropped. I think there’s going to be a LOT of samba in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. And despite my lack of enthusiasm for beach volley, that event from Ipanema Beach will be iconic. I wonder how small a tanga can get?