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’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot