OLYMPICS: Summer of love

For 17 days in July and August, we didn’t look at London through a prism of begrudgery and snorting derision, because they only put on the damn best show anyone could remember. (Ireland should try it sometime ...) Here’s the top ten memories of Olympics 2012

THE OPENING CEREMONY: Okay, straight up. You came to laugh, well to snigger. Those are our defence mechanisms. Olympic opening ceremonies are the purgatory of sporting life, three hours of suffering which you offer up before getting through the gates. And how would the Brit love of pomp and circumstance make us suffer? Not at all as it turned out. As Danny Boyle’s visceral, two-fingered defence of the NHS unfolded bizarrely right in the middle of this mad carnival, we began to feel small and begrudging. By the time we got to the end of this great big, humorous, eccentric, half-mad expo of all that is distinctive about our noisy neighbours we were thinking about handing these 26 benighted counties back to the stars of the show, James Bond and her Maj.

DAVID RUDISHA: At the track most of our thrills were vicarious. The post-Sonia famine grinds on as reliably as the shaking of Jerry Kiernan’s disappointed head. Still. There was the 800 metres. We virtually won the greatest race of the games. When David Rudisha first walked into Br Colm O’Connell’s training camp, he was a fish out of water. Wrong man. Wrong tribe. Wrong place. He became O’Connell’s greatest star and his most loyal disciple. His 800 metre final was a runaway train of a race. Rudisha smashed the world record. Andrew Osagie of GB who came last would have won gold at any of the last three games with the time he submitted. It was said that the last time Rudisha had broken the world record his tribesmen slaughtered 50 cattle in his honour. This time surely, they would be opening a chain of burger joints.

SCANDAL? A scandal, our media kingdom for a scandal. The Olympics cry out for scandal. Since Ben Johnson’s groundbreaking work in Seoul virtually every Olympics has had an overarching hoo-haa, something which brings the media together in a chorus of righteous clucking. From Ben to Marion to Tonya Harding, to those irascible Greeks faking a motorcycle crash in Athens, these scandals have been nourishing media events.

In London we had to make do with some harsh aspersions about Ye Shiwen of China, the 16-year-old who swam her final 50m faster than her male Olympic counterpart and shaved five seconds off her pb. And, of course, Badmintongate when four pairs of women’s doubles badminton players were disqualified for deliberately losing their matches. Nobody died. Honestly we wouldn’t have noticed without being told.

USAIN BOLT: What’s eating Usain Bolt we asked for months before the Olympics? Too much hype, too many advertisements with Richard Branson, too many nights clubbing. We knew the answers. And when he failed to win either the 100m or 200m at the Jamaican Olympic trials we knew the consequences. And then he taught us that everything we know is wrong. He cruised into London. Tweeted pictures of himself mid-competition partying with the Swedish women’s handball team at three in the morning. He went home with three gold medals and left us all asking if we could have some of whatever Mr Bolt is having.

BOXING’S QUEEN: Jesus and Katie Taylor take gold in the boxing pairs event. Nobody has ever endured such a long, scary, drumroll on the way to Olympic success as that which Katie Taylor had to put up with. Backstory: In the beginning there was nothing, but on the first day Katie Taylor created women’s boxing. Many good things came to pass and lo, (eventually) the IOC put women’s boxing on its schedule and it was decreed that it would be churlish and disappointing if Katie Taylor did not win gold, seeing as how everybody had gone to such trouble and Ireland was starving for a little respite from austerity. And then she delivered. Amidst all the hype and delirium and craziness she came through and the experience seemed to change the rest of us more than it changed Katie Taylor. Or Jesus.

POOR RIO, NO MICHAEL: Whatever happens in four year’s time, the Brazilians begin their games at a disadvantage. No Michael Phelps. Over the course of several Olympics we have watched Phelps grow into arguably the greatest Olympian of all time. More than that, for one so dominant he has always been a story, almost an aquatic Truman Show as we have watched him grow up, fall, fail and then triumph again. London should have been a quiet farewell, but by the time Phelps shut down his Olympic career with a win in the 4x100m medley relay he owned the first week’s headlines. His battles with Ryan Lochte and Chad le Clos were those of an ageing warrior. His career total of 18 gold medals and 22 medals overall is a towering achievement in consistency.

BEING THERE: The joy of the Olympics often has nothing to do with podiums or anthems. The small stories resonate. From London we couch potatoes were offered the story of Wojdan Shaherkani of Saudi Arabia. Her actual Olympics lasted just 82 seconds before she hit the mat in her first round judo bout. Her story and her impact will last much longer. The first female Olympian from her country, the 16-year-old old cleared every obstacle of her culture and defied every hate-filled medieval insult to get to London. The following week her compatriot Sarah Attar became the first Saudi woman to run in the Games. Many of the home grown stars of Britain’s Olympics were accomplished sportswomen who came through a nurturing sports system. Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar were a reminder that there is still another world out there.

OSCAR PISTORIUS: Speaking of other worlds, there are times when Oscar must listen to the debates which break over his head and wonder what life is all about. Being a double amputee with blades instead of ankles and feet is, some have argued, an unfair advantage. If it was an advantage of course, like EPO, they’d all be at it. Oscar came to the Games, saw and was conquered. Being there mattered and when Kirani James, the Grenadian sprinter who would go onto win gold, swapped his number and name badge with Pistorius after their heat that simple gesture reminded us all of what sport is actually about.

THE VELODROME: We are a small, damp country with bad roads and worse weather. Why don’t we build a velodrome? With a roof. They built one in Manchester when that city was daydreaming about hosting the Olympics. Years later look at how that Velodrome has added to the gaiety of a nation. The velodrome events are half mad and thoroughly entertaining and have the happy, inventive feel of the playground about them, Chases, pursuits, thrills and spills. From Chris Hoy to the wonderful Laura Trott we got hooked on Velodrome life. Enda?

RTÉ: The national broadcaster went out like Noah before the flood, looking for a couple from every species to explain and excuse the Irish performances in London. Correctly anticipating our boxing success they recruited just about everybody who has ever danced on canvas. The boxing boys had the easiest job. That Bill O’Herlihy kept going through the false dawns and sad post-mortems of the track and field events is a credit to his professionalism. That we kept watching is a credit to our optimism. As the expensive failures mounted we waited for Bill to cry out that never in the history of sporting endeavour have so few owed so much to so many, but Bill kept looking for the silver lining. A lesson for the times we live in.

— L Jon Herling

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