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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue