Alan White's Olympic diary: Ten reasons the Olympics have been absolutely awesome

The athletes! The facts! The medals! Ian Thorpe! The volunteers!

Conscious I’ve been moaning too much this week; so as not to give a false impression:

1. The opening ceremony

As Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail correctly surmised, this was a work of Marxist propaganda. Those of us familiar with Danny Boyle’s oeuvre have understood his political leanings ever since we heard about his famous homage to centralised work targets, 127 Hours. Mr Boyle’s ceremony was a classic piece of insidious leftism, from its flagrant celebration of the fact Britons receive free health care to its steadfast refusal to re-enact great moments in our foreign policy such as the Battle of Omdurman or the sinking of the Belgrano, both of which would have worked well set to something appropriate like Don’t Look Back In Anger.

Despite these failings on Mr Boyle’s part, he somehow produced a performance that was quirky, heartwarming, witty and exciting.

2. The lure of the obscure

It’s amazing how quickly one can move from a) Not knowing what sport it is, to b) Not understanding the rules, to c) Being really quite engrossed, to d) Swearing at the TV when the British contestant does something wrong.

During yesterday’s trap shooting the entire process took me something like three minutes and thirty-seven seconds, which puts me in Medal Contention (see point six).

3. The athletes are incredible

From the tortured vulnerability of Vicky Pendleton to the folksy, mutton-chopped charm of Wiggo, they’re all just so damn lovable. And to pick an example from yesterday:

What I consider adversity: The fact I had to catch a rail replacement bus service some of last month.

What Gemma Gibbons, silver medal winner in judo, considers adversity:  The death of her mother when she was 17. Her mother had brought Gemma up alone and had taken her, on public transport, to all her judo classes. Gemma later worked as a receptionist to pay the rent, all the while attempting to become a professional athlete.

She was, in terms of this tournament – a no one - ranked 42nd in the world at the start. That’s why I think the shot of her after the semi-final might well end up the defining one of the games, because she’d just laid the smack down on someone from France. Because she embodies the Olympic spirit. And that’s just our girl. Look at the story of the woman who beat her.

4. Politicians proving beyond all doubt they’re weird

Boris getting stuck up a zip wire like a great big toddler in a sling, the Romneyshambles, Aiden Burley’s ill-advised tweets, The Curse of Cameron...where does it end? Politicos have been queuing up to look like Normal People this week, and failing miserably. Jeremy Hunt today claims Locog tricked him into paying £2,400 for four tickets, but the telling suggests he didn’t understand his own organising committee’s website. It would be a big story, but given this is a man who nearly killed a woman with his bell end a few days ago, the take-up hasn’t been huge. Nothing will surprise us.

5. Meet the parents

Is there any sweeter a sight than the parental pride we’ve witnessed at these games? I know I’ve already linked to both these videos, but the parents of Aly Raisman and Chad le Clos deserve to become stars in their own right. I particularly enjoyed the commentators last night exclusively referring to the latter as “The son of Bert le Clos”. More of this please.

6. The languages

Two things, here. First, I love the feeling of being in a crowd and thereby surrounded by the world. At the Table Tennis, it was admittedly an annoying Australian woman who kept cheering on her competitor even though he being destroyed and the rest of the stand was watching a different game, but at the boxing I was near a whole group of excitable Kazakhstanis who were making a thoroughly rousing din, and it’s not often you can say that.

Then there’s the Olympic language of neologisms. “Podium” and “medal” as verbs are rather nasty, it must be said, but one BBC commentator saw a rider fall off a trotting horse and inadvertently claimed they’d “decanted”, which I love.

7. The games staff

We Brits really don’t do this stuff very well, normally. Ever tried engaging a Heathrow border guard in chit-chat? At best you’ll get a forced smile; at worst, or perhaps slightly better, you’re looking at a cavity search.

But the games volunteers I’ve met have been, to a man and woman – wonderful. Who are these 70,000 purple-jacketed lunatics? Why are they doing this? Because they want to? Read the words of this strange creature. Is this really Britain?

And never mind them – let’s talk about the army. Many of us don’t get to meet soldiers all that often, nor hear about them in anything other than a negative context. But the ones I’ve met have been every bit as cheery and charming as the volunteers. This despite spending their down-time in somewhat basic conditions. And the thing that really strikes me, and I expect will next time a sombre mood grips the House of Commons for 30 seconds before the Punch and Judy of PMQs kicks off: most of them seem so very, very young. I don’t care if that makes me sound like Max Hastings.

8. “Now, what I want is facts”

They never cease to amaze, if you’re boring, like me. Ten million litres of water in the Aquatic Centre. 30,000 elephants’ worth (official Locog measurement) of concrete to make the Olympic Park. 150,000 condoms given to the athletes (unsure how many elephants’ worth that is). 1,233km of fabric to make the volunteers’ uniforms. 25,000 loaves of bread for the Olympic Village. 10,000 toilets. I could go on, and if you ask me after I’ve been drinking, I will.

9. The presenters

Claire Balding has earned the plaudits she’s deserved for years. Intelligent, professional, geekishly well-informed yet never boring, partisan but not bombastic, she has been a wonder. Stitch that, AA Gill.

The Linekers, Johnsons and McEnroes are known quantities: like the best British teams we don’t have any stand-out stars, at least half our best performers have been imported from overseas and there’s a vague sense of a horrific calamity round the corner. We gave the world Colemanballs, remember.

The wild card in this mix is Ian Thorpe. Now I know opinion on this has been divided so I think it’s important to be clear where I stand: he’s a wonderful man with fantastic dress sense and he’s made me reconsider my sexuality. I’d like to see him become a regular on the BBC, starting on something like The One Show and eventually progressing to become Director General.

10. Medal rush

Where are we in the medals? Why aren’t we ahead of Kazakhstan yet? Why haven’t we won any medals? Ooh, there’s a medal! And there’s another medal! Oh no, we could have had a medal there too! Now where are we? Still behind South Korea? Want ALL the medals. Why? Don’t ask why! Medals! Must have the medals! What’s that? There’s still two weeks to go? We’re going to have you, China!

Odds and Ends is having a day off.

 

Team GB's Gemma Gibbons wins her judo semi-final. 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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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

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 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution