Alan White's Olympics diary: It's hardly rocket science, this incredible Olympic spirit

Respect, tolerance, and playing by the rules - it's everywhere at these Games.

I’m sorry to be po-faced today. But it was always going to be downhill from the moment I read Jan Moir’s Daily Mail piece, in which she described Marianne Vos (who beat Lizzie Armitstead to gold in the road race) as "some bitch from Holland".

Now, one could be outraged by the rudeness shown to a world-class athlete. The staggering sense of entitlement and arrogance which enables Moir to assume this can pass for a gag. Vos, a double Olympic champion, is a no one to be dismissed, simply because she’s not Our Girl.

But it’s not actually that which angers me. It’s the degree to which Moir just doesn’t get it.

You see, we fans can only perceive sport through a one-eyed perspective – the lens of error. For example: we may not be able to sprint off the shoulder of the last man like Daniel Sturridge, but both we and he can blast one wide from six yards.

We understand mistakes, and the media knows this. Hence, according to the BBC, "questions would have to be asked" about Tour de France fatigue if there were more bad results following the men’s road race, despite the fact they’d have been totally irrelevant. It gets wearying. WHY did we not beat the world’s absolute best at something? WHY didn’t it go to plan for you in the 1.6 seconds between board and water, Tom Daley?

No: we’re very prone to forget about the talent, hard work, barely believable pain and sacrifice that gets our athletes to this summit in the first place, and from which we seem all too happy to see them fall. But there’s a vital thing we do understand. Today, having read Moir’s piece, we see it in spades.

We see it when Daley says "we missed the fourth dive" despite the fact that his partner was the main culprit. We understand when the British Gymnastic team retain their smiles despite a last minute appeal that shifts them from silver to bronze, and we see it in the equivocal, charming reaction of Louis Smith. I happen to catch it live at the boxing, as the crowd cheer and applaud men who’ve been on the end of categorical - nay biblical - ass-whuppings. It’s everywhere.

It’s the Olympic spirit, and it’s hardly rocket science, this stuff. Try to respect the rules, your opponent, and your team mates. Because without that, there is no sport. And that’s partly because sport’s one of the few spheres within which you shouldn’t be judged around all the bullshit that follows you everywhere else – your race, your class, your background. It’s the one place you can’t be dismissed as ‘some bitch from Holland’.

It’s why drugs cheating or fixing amount to a betrayal. There’s a mutual trust thing going on here – we, the fans, will throw our heart and soul into what we’re watching; we’ll support all of you, whatever happens, just as long as we know that it’s real – that you’re likewise giving it everything. If we suspect otherwise, we can’t.

And of course it doesn’t always work out as fairly as all that. Of course there’s a reason Zara Philips does Eventing rather than Boxing, and of course the drugs question will never leave us. The point is the concept - the nebulous, half-formed ideal that permeates the codification of so many sports. And what it boils down to is: here, we’re children once more.

Odds and ends:

  • Apropos of the above, it takes a strength of character to challenge the world’s best at anything. Zoe Smith broke the British record in the clean-and-jerk today. Now read her blog on sexist attitudes to her sport, and ask yourself how many 18-year-olds are that self-aware and articulate. The main story yesterday evening was the disgusting comments made to Tom Daley by a troll on Twitter. There’s been some talk of banning the athletes from using it. I’d rather it remained their choice: if they’re like Ms Smith, they can more than cope.
     
  • The ticket row rumbles on. Jeremy Hunt’s interview on Radio Four regarding the issue was reassuring , right up until the point he started talking about the events to which he was going over the next couple of days. Which seemed to be: pretty much all the good ones, kthxbye.
     
  • Speaking of children, you’ll do well to see a sweeter thing than this interview with stunned 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte after she won the 100m breaststroke. Staggering.
     
  • The news that the police lost the keys to Wembley made me laugh. It can take me anything up to 30 minutes to find mine, and there are only six seats to search the back of in my flat. With 90,000 to inspect, changing the locks was probably the best response.
     
  • I’ve only just caught up with this piece on how the Olympics suckered the left, from Andrew Gilligan. Food for thought, at least.
     
  • The men’s bronze in team gymnastics was a phenomenal result. One of the best things about the coverage has been the Matrix-style camerawork. Here’s how bullet time works – it’s been around longer than you might think.

 

British gymnast Louis Smith celebrates after his successful pommel horse routine. 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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit