Alan White's Olympics diary: The 2012 Olympics alternative awards

Yes, it’s the laziest of all journalistic tropes. But still, what would any sporting event be without an alternative set of awards?

The Gerald Ratner Garland for Brand Promotion Failure:

As the games have rolled on, these stories have died down, but there haven’t half been some crackers. For all the joy, one needs to remember that this is a deeply corporate event: the organisers were so desperate to snuff out un-Olympic sponsors they even taped over the handryers in the toilets. Even better, an official investigation was even launched into the athletes’ use of illicit condoms.

In this febrile atmosphere, kudos to this press release from RealStaffing recruitment agency: “If you are looking for the next Bradley Wiggins (of financial accounting) or Philips Idowu (of Project Accounting) to see your team over the finish line this summer then get in touch...”

But the winner is easily McDonald’s, with the bizarre stand-off over chip sales in the Olympic Park. According to business information group Precise, the company has generated net negative sentiment across social media over the course of the Olympics. Well done to all involved.

The “Hello, Harvey Weinstein? Have I Got An Option For You” Trophy for Inspirational Stories:

There are too many here, most involving women. Gemma Gibbons won silver from 42nd in the world, thanking her recently-deceased mother who had ferried her on public transport to every class. For Taekwondo medallist, Jade Jones, the people of the small Welsh town of Flint helped her raise funding.  Another competitor, Sarah Stevenson, lost both parents in the space of three months and suffered a devastating knee injury, yet still managed to compete. Boxer Nicola Adams – so skilful, so damn cool – worked as a painter and decorator and as an extra on Coronation Street  to finance her dreams. I also think this guy has to be in with a shout, just for managing to play on. Christ.

But anyway, the winner is diver Chris Mears. He was never going to get a medal. But in 2009, after rupturing his spleen and losing five pints of blood just before the Youth Olympics in Sydney, his parents were told their son had a 5 per cent chance of surviving the operation. You’ll pardon me for saying it’s not the winning that matters...

The “Damn, If Only Andy Coulson Wasn’t Busy” Plaque for Misfiring Political Involvement

There have been a number of successes which, in any other country, would be an almighty failure. Most people found Jeremy Hunt’s unfortunate bellend incident endearing and somehow managed to overlook his meeting with Rupert Murdoch at the pool. They did the same for Boris Johnson, and likewise giggled as he found himself suspended from a zip wire. Aidan Burley MP, it’s fair to say, hasn’t come out of the games quite so unscathed, but given he’d previously been known as the guy who went on a stag do where people dressed as Nazis, some would say merely being perceived as crass is a result.
But the overwhelming winner has to be David Cameron. It started with “The Curse of Cameron”, as the Prime Minister gamely sped around the events in the hope of spotting a Gold, ruining the dreams of scores of British athletes (apparently). It got worse when a photo was released of him watching the games at home. Cue a thousand people firing up photoshop for giggles. Then he said some stupid things about Indian Dancing in schools. And then someone found footage from prior to the games of him playing table tennis with Barack Obama. Boy, does he suck.

The Daily Mail Newsdesk Ribbon for Totally Missing the Point

Too many. Huge amounts of crap being spoken by columnists and online about how the Olympics tells us something New and Profound about footballers, as if every footballer is John Terry. Huge amounts of crap being spoken by the right on the death of competitive sport and on the left about how PE teachers are mean. The Daily Mail railing against mixed race marriages and papping the athletes. On the latter, the Guardian joining in. French protests against British cycling’s “Magic Wheels” (GB cycling performance director: “They’re very round”).  

The runner up? Piers Morgan. Complains about the national anthem not being sung by various athletes, is righteously slapped down, and to save face complains about a faked picture (you may recall why he left the Mirror).

The overwhelming winner: Surrey police, who arrested a 54-year-old spectator for a “public order offence”, saying he failed to smile or seem to enjoy the men’s cycling road race. He has Parkinson’s disease.

Other awards:
The Official New Statesman Shield for Olympic Spirit

In a field containing the British Men’s Eight going for gold and getting bronze rather than a likely silver, the classy Kirani James ignoring the faux-controversy and swapping bibs with Oscar Pistorius, and the various hugs, cuddles and kisses between competitors that followed every event, it takes something special to win. So (sob) I’m giving it to the thousands of Games Makers. Thank you, all.

The Instagram Hipster Rosette for Photography

So many here. Something dodgy in the water. Something else dodgy in the water. Usain Bolt’s photos after his win. Also, another photo involving Usain Bolt. X-rated action in the water polo. Team Rwanda at a bus stop. Ruben Limardo on the tube.

But I’m going to go with this picture of runners shimmering behind the Olympic Flame.

The Archimedes Presentation Salver for A Good Idea

Gary Naylor suggests that we should see gold, silver and bronze plaques on the walls of every medal-winners school.

The Fowler’s Modern Dictionary Bowl for Services to Language

Turns out “medal” as a verb dates actually back to Byron, but well done to the Guardian style guide for hoping this is the first occasion where people use “brink” correctly, rather than “cusp”, wrongly.

The Bert le Clos Silver Tankard for Heartwarming Parenting

Fending off stern competition from Aly Raisman’s parents and Chris Hoy’s mother, this goes to Bert le Clos. Let’s watch him again shall we?

That’s it: we’re done. I’d just like to thank my coaches, family, friends and...sorry, it’s all too much. Enjoy the Closing Ceremony everyone....

Want more? Jumbo Odds and Ends

The official London 2012 auction: everything must go.

The man with the wooden leg who won six gold medals.

Nice Vanity Fair feature on Olympic athletes of the past: where are they now?

Another great Olympic story: “The Flying Housewife”, from the 1948 Olympics.

Dr David Wright volunteered in 1948, and in 2012.

Is lactic acid to blame for Olympic pain?

Brilliant Ed Caesar piece on the Irish priest who trains Kenyan Olympians.

Nicola Adams’s dog watches her claim gold.

Best. Hashtag. Ever.

How would the ancient empires be doing today?

The BBC’s “20 things you may not have spotted” feature was excellent; so too its follow-up.

The physics of diving.

And the physics of cycling.

Steeplechase competitor’s awesome medal dance.

A love letter to the BBC.

How far do athletes travel?

Anyone else remember when high jump gold medal winner Ivan Ukhov competed drunk? (via 22 words).

Incredible Facebook album of 1948 Olympians.

The scariest British fan of them all.

Young athlete explains how he ran away from trouble last August.
 

The Olympic flame. 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.

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.