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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era