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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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