Spectator sport

Our (nearly) golden summer

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

20 August 2016

9:00 AM

It seems like a long time ago, but back in the day, when Sir John Major launched the National Lottery, there was a fair bit of sanctimonious tut-tutting from the liberal establishment: it was a tax on the poor who couldn’t be trusted to spend their own money, it encouraged gambling, it was just a bit vulgar. And all that. Well, how’s that drivel looking now? A shedload of Team GB golds later, and how do those who sneered at the lottery feel about it today?

Notwithstanding Britain’s staggering achievements, the Games are not perfect, of course: there’s too much track cycling and way too many swimming events. And possibly — whisper this — a bit too much rowing. Golf and tennis shouldn’t be in the Olympics, but try telling that to Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson, or Andy Murray and Juan Martín del Potro, who battled out one of the sporting epics of the year, with a raucous crowd rooting wildly for the Scot because if there is one thing a Brazilian can’t stand it’s an Argie.

We all have our favourite bits: John Inverdale and Sir Steve Redgrave looking like two burly bickering coppers from Thames Valley CID in pursuit of some fugitive villain; the women’s cyclists all in plaits — even the gorgeous Jo Rowsell Shand, who had plaited her wig; the refugee team: the Sudanese farmers, Kenyan exiles and fugitives from the Syrian wars who have picked up a couple of medals — in shooting, which is what you’d expect if much of your life is spent in danger; the bravery of the cyclists on that narrow, steep descent in the road races; Adam Peaty, solid citizen of Staffordshire with a physique that could flatten a bull, shattering the world 100m breaststroke record and proudly belting out the national anthem as he looked around in wonder, savouring every moment.

My favourite (so far) in a very crowded field was the wonderful Max Whitlock’s first (and unexpected) gold with a stupendous routine of dazzling tumbling and twisting in a gravity-defying mid-air ballet. Whitlock is a modest young man who took the glory with English restraint. Not so his rivals: gymnastics are big in Brazil and the silver and bronze went to two locals, Diego Hypólito and Arthur Mariano, who were quite overwhelmed and spent most of the contest and all of the medal ceremony weeping uncontrollably. It was a sight to behold and impossible not to shed a wee tear oneself. .

This is better than London 2012. All the athletes look more relaxed — calmer, somehow, and happier: well, wouldn’t you rather be in Rio than Stratford East?

But was it just coincidence that Sensational Sunday of those multiple golds in Rio coincided with Sod-awful Sunday at the Oval? Is there a reason why in this super summer we are celebrating the successes of our canoeists, our cyclists, our pommel-horsers while wondering why our cricketers couldn’t win a home Test series against a determined but fairly moderate Pakistan side and our footballers froze against Iceland?

Last Sunday, while millions tuned into the Beeb to watch our gallant guys and gals churn out the golds, our cricketers produced some dross in front of a paltry satellite audience. It’s several years now, of course, since our main public broadcaster disgracefully turned its back on live cricket, and the vast majority of live football has long been the preserve of subscription channels.

What the BBC does so superbly, though, is cover the Olympics every four years, and that inspirational effect of showcasing a wide range of ‘minor’ sports — especially in the home Games four years ago — is possibly what we are seeing in Rio now.

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