Alan White's Olympics diary: Great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous

Thank goodness for Ian Thorpe, Nigerian table-tennis players and all the other Olympic wonders.

Friday 27 July

Outrage. Mitt Romney has slagged off our preparations. Clearly, there’s something in the air, because this is seen as a gaffe. How dare he come over here and say exactly the same thing our press has been saying for the last two weeks! I feel the tone has been set: this might end up being a bloody shambles, but if is, it’s our bloody shambles.

On Sky News, meanwhile, Kay Burley is talking to a former Olympic weightlifter. “So how good were you?” she asks.

I know there’s something odd going on when I begin to feel the love for Jeremy Hunt. The Minister has an unfortunate incident in which he inadvertently imperils a woman with his bell end (there really is no other way to report this). The disco remix is online in minutes. I’ve now watched this clip 763 times, and it doesn’t stop being funny.

There are under-reported things I particularly like – first, the Frank Spencer “Ooo!” he makes as the bell flies off, and second the classic English knee-jerk, embarrassment-defusing comment about everyone’s favourite bugbear, “Health and Safety”. I mean, if there’s anyone who actually should care about Health and Safety it’s presumably a man responsible for organizing a global sporting event, but anyway.

Kay Burley is talking to the crowds on Tower Bridge. She asks an 11-year-old child if he remembers Sir Paul McCartney. He doesn’t understand what she means.

A bunch of us gather at a mate’s house to watch the ceremony. “This is like a shite panto,” a friend texts. We’re pretty cynical. It’s hard to pick out the moment when the mood in the room shifts. For me, I think it’s the moment when I realize they’re forging the Olympic rings. So many thousands of words have been written on this by better writers than me – all I can say is I agree with the summation that Beijing showed its strength, Britain its soul.

Not everyone’s happy, of course. Aiden Burley MP doesn’t like the “multicultural crap”, but then when your idea of fun is hanging out with guys dressed as Nazis I suppose most public events are a bit of a letdown. He justifies it by complaining about all the rappers (i.e. Dizzee Rascal). Toby Young complains that there wasn’t enough attention paid to Churchill’s speeches, the Commonwealth or Margaret Thatcher. Later, Rick Dewsbury writes something vile and racist in the Daily Mail before chickening out (read this – really, you must).

This, of course, is just the lunatic fringe. To my mind the only really serious criticism comes from David Icke, who points out the satanic elements of what we’ve witnessed. Things get worse in this regard when I discover the Olympic Mascots are tools of the Illuminati.

Anyway, Aidan Burley must be fuming as the stadium starts to fill up with foreigners, but fortunately they’re just the athletes. At the house party I’m attending – and no doubt thousands of others, an extremely competitive alphabetical next country guessing game unfolds. “It’ll be the Gambia coming in next; just wait. Oh damn you, Gabon!”

By the end of the ceremony we’re all quite drunk, and left with more questions than answers. Who the hell are the Independent Olympic Athletes? (Answer here). Is that...Shami Chakrabarti? (It was). They dared to have the Arctic Monkeys on rather than Coldplay or someone? (They really did).

And finally…did they really let some unknowns light the flame, after all that speculation? Because if they did…well, that’s just beautiful.

 

Sat 28 July

The morning starts with a hangover and a second viewing of the Olympics ceremony. It’s twice as good second time around, though Trevor Nelson is four times as annoying.

On with the TV, and into the action. Obviously we have to watch Mark Cavendish in the road race. But this is on for hours, and nothing much happens till near the end. Right, let’s head to the rowing on the red button – Bill Lucas and Sam Townsend (no, obviously I’ve no idea who they are either, but they’re British) are neck and neck with the young pretenders of Argentina but now the champions, New Zealand, have burst past the pair of them and…

What’s this I see on Twitter? Fran Halsall’s just made the semis of the 100m butterfly and Dana Vollmer’s just set a new Olympic record!  And what’s that? Robbie Rennick’s leading the 400m freestyle? Time to flip over. Actually I’d better check on the road race just in case Cavendish has been taken out by a squirrel or something. No, he’s fine. But now I’ve missed what’s happened to Rennick. So I go online to check and OH MY GOD THERE ARE 24 LIVE CHANNELS OF THIS STUFF.

How the hell am I supposed to manage this? I’ve parked the cyling, I’ve got the swimming on the telly and China playing the Czech Republic at women’s basketball on the computer (and my God is that violent). But how do I monitor the preliminary round of the women’s -48kg judo? And sub-division 1 of the men’s gymnastic qualifiers? The Three-Day Eventing Dressage?

It’s a relief to leave the house and go to my first event: the ping pong. Note: under no circumstances should you call it that when in the arena. Serious fans and competitors get touchy.

The first impression is, bluntly, fantastic. The reason? The volunteers. They all seem genuinely happy to be there. Especially this woman. For all the cynicism – and no doubt much of it isn’t misplaced – there’s a spirit among the crowds. And it’s – well, it’s multicultural. Some guys from Thailand in ceremonial robes pose for a snap with a couple of American tourists. Some Japanese people are entranced by two British guys in weightlifting fancy dress.

The sport itself is fantastic. No doubt the crowd favourite is the Nigerian Segun Toriola – it’s not every day you see a Nigerian table-tennis player, and not only that, he has a very showboaty forehand smash.

It’s a great sport, with a faint air of the ridiculous. It’s the little reminders that it’s tennis, but small. I like it when the contestants turn to their coach and give them the fist pump, like they do at Wimbledon, but because it’s table tennis, the coach is right behind them so they’re screaming in their face. And they always have to retrieve the ball themselves.

My favourite athletes, generally, are ones with names about which I can make rubbish jokes to my other half. So I’m overjoyed when Miao Miao of China enters the stadium. She remains my favourite athlete right up until the point I hear unconfirmed reports a Wong Wai is competing in the cycling.

 

Sun 29 July

Last night I noticed there was a block of empty seats at the table tennis. Strange, I thought. Turns out there’s a major story here.

The media is struggling to find out whose fault it is. Initially, we all assume it’s the sponsors’ fault, but it soon comes to pass that it’s more complicated than that, and it’s to do with allocations to foreign countries. Turns out we can’t actually blame McDonald’s or the bureaucrats that Jacques Rogge laughably described as “working class” as much as we’d like. Hopefully a solution will be found, be it volunteers, people from the community, or the army.

It all begs the question of what the sponsors are getting out of this. No one seems to have a good word to say for them – which is presumably why they get instantly blamed for the biggest scandal thus far, and they don’t even seem to get that many seats. What’s their return on investment. Worth it? I ask a mate who works in the sports industry. “Studies say so,” he says. “But it’s all smoke and mirrors. No one’s got a bloody clue, to be honest.”

Anyway, thank goodness for Ian Thorpe. Ian has been on the BBC since it kicked off, providing funny, honest and insightful opinion. There’s something incredibly soothing about his manner and voice. So we’ve just cut to the British contestant getting knocked out of another random event? Don’t worry. Ian’s here. It’ll all be alright.

Speaking of nice people, the two stories of the day are Lizzie Armitstead in the road race and Rebecca Adlington in the 400m. Armitstead wins silver after a thrilling sprint and Adlington a far-from-guaranteed bronze (apropos of nothing, one more award than Frankie Boyle won for Tramadol Nights). Both of them – as is the case, it seems, with many athletes - are charming, sweet-natured women. 

The next day, Armitstead will talk about the problems with sexism in cycling, and London’s mayor will write about the female beach volleyball players “glistening like otters” in an otherwise rather good article on the Olympics thus far. To be fair to him, it’s the sort of cheap joke we’ve all made. But as it happens, the beach volleyball is one of the most exciting events of the day, for quite different reasons: Britain pull off a thrilling victory over Canada. Who must be better at it than, say, Switzerland, at least.

After many, many hours of sport, I switch to BBC One and see Ian Thorpe is STILL there, after what I think is twenty consecutive hours of intense punditry. This man is putting in a shift. I fall asleep to the sound of his voice. “Look,” he says. “Look.” “Look.” “Go to sleep now. Ian’s looking after you.”

Check back for more updates through the week from Alan White's Olympic Diary.

 

The Olympics! Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

A pro-union march in 2014. Photo: Getty
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The legacy of sectarianism is still poisoning the air of Scotland

Ruth Davidson has reinstated two Stirling councillors who posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media. That this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles.

Kenny Dalglish was a bluenose: as a boy in the mid-60s, he and his father would make the short journey to Ibrox to cheer on Rangers, then Scotland’s most successful team. With the football allegiance came a cultural one, too. Or, probably, the other way round.

Wee Kenny could play a bit, obviously, and dreamed that his beloved Gers would sign him up. But, as Richard T Kelly writes in Keegan and Dalglish, his enjoyable new double biography of the two footballing greats, "Rangers had a certain preference for big lads, or else lads with an obvious turn of pace; and Dalglish, despite his promise, had neither of those easy attributes."

Rangers’ loss was Celtic’s gain, but it took some effort. The former, writes Kelly, "was the club of the Queen, the Union, Scotland’s Protestant majority… founded by Freemasons and members of the Orange Order, strongly tied to the shipyards of Govan. Glasgow Celtic was the team of Irish Catholic patriots, revolutionary Fenians and Home Rulers, begun as a charitable organisation… a means to bolster the faith and keep the flock out of the clutches of Protestant soup kitchens. It was going to be a serious step across a threshold for Dalglish to accept the overtures of Celtic."

In the end, Jock Stein dispatched his number two, the unhelpfully named Sean Fallon, to meet the young starlet’s family. "Fallon entered a domestic environment he felt to be 'a bit tense' -  a Rangers house, a lion’s den, if you will. Fallon even picked up the sense that Bill [Dalglish’s father] might rather his son pursue [an] apprenticeship in joinery."

The deal was done ("My dream was to become a professional footballer – the location was just a detail," Dalglish would later say) and the most gifted player Scotland has ever produced went on to make his reputation kitted out in green and white stripes rather than royal blue -  a quirk of those difficult times for which those of us classed as Fenian bastards rather than Orange bastards will be forever grateful.

Growing up in west and central Scotland, it was hard to avoid being designated as one type of bastard or the other, even if you supported a team outwith the Old Firm or had no interest in football at all. Thanks to 19th century immigration, the terrible religio-political divide of Ulster was the dominant cultural force even in Stirling, the town around 25 miles from Glasgow where I grew up and where I now live again. If you went to the Catholic school, as I did, you were a Fenian; if you went to the Proddy (officially, non-demominational) school, you were a Hun. You mostly hung around with your own, and youthful animosity and occasional violence was largely directed across the religious barricades. We knew the IRA slogans and the words to the Irish rebel songs; they had the UVF and the Red Hand of Ulster. We went to the Cubs, they went to the Boys’ Brigade. We got used to the Orange Walks delivering an extra-loud thump on the drums as they passed the chapel inside which we were performing our obligatory Sunday observance.

At the time – around the early and mid 80s – such pursuit of identity might not have been much more than a juvenile game, but it was part of something more serious. It was still the case that Catholics were unemployable in significant Scottish industries – "which school did you got to, son?" was the killer interview question if your answer began with "Saint". This included the media: in the late 90s, when I joined the Daily Record – the "Daily Ranger" to Celtic fans (its Sunday sister, the Sunday Mail, was known to Rangers fans as the "Sunday Liam") – vestiges of this prejudice, and the anecdotes that proved it, were still in the air.

The climate is undoubtedly better now. Secularisation has played its part - my own daughters attend non-denominational schools – even if, as the sportswriter Simon Kuper has observed, many are "not about to give up their ancient traditions just because they no longer believe in God". The peace process in Northern Ireland and important gestures such as the late public friendship between Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness have made a difference. And I suppose the collapse of Rangers as a footballing force, amid financial corruption that saw them dumped into the bottom tier of Scottish football, helped.

But the sensitivity remains. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum broke down in part across tribal lines, with many Celtic supporters, once Labour, now SNP, loudly backing a Yes vote, while Rangers fans were on the No side. The prospect of Brexit creating a significant border between the north and south of Ireland, which could inflame recently and shallowly buried tensions, makes one shudder. And even locally, the old enmities continue to raise their grubby heads. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Tories, is currently taking flak for allowing the reinstatement of two Stirling councillors who had posted anti-Catholic and racist messages on social media prior to their election. The pair have apologised and agreed to take part in diversity training, but I confess that this kind of cretinous guff still goes on in my hometown in 2017 raises my hackles. The rawness remains.

That this is so was brought to me a few years ago when I filed a column containing the word ‘sectarianism’ to a Scottish newspaper. Though the context had nothing to do with Catholic/Protestant or Celtic/Rangers, the editor asked me to remove it. "It’ll be deliberately misunderstood by one side or the other, and probably both," he said. "It’s not worth the hassle. In Scotland I’m afraid it never is."

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).