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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.