You’ll have heard the joke, by this stage, or made it yourself.
Every Olympics, without fail. The one about how you become an expert at the oul synchronised diving/Taekwondo/canoe slalom after watching it for 20 minutes every four years.
Ryle Nugent himself said it, while actually commentating on the oul synchronised diving the other night. One of the Irish stars of these Olympics, the great man has been hot-footing it from triathlon to diving to football to rugby sevens doing commentary for the international TV feed and sounds like he’s having a rare old time in the process.
In many ways, he is the patron saint of the temporary Olympic expert, the ideal to whom the rest of us bleary-eyed aficionados aspire. Have no doubt, after nodding off to the dressage on Tuesday night, I feel fully confident to hold forth in front of a global audience on the merits of a 12-year-old stallion mincing to Rihanna’s ‘Shine Bright Like A Diamond’.
The spirit of Ryle is alive in all of us right now. You meet people and they will talk openly about how much they enjoyed, say, the men’s shortboard surfing final, how it was a dominant performance by Italo Ferreira, the Brazilian, world number one of course, but what a frustrating day on the waves for Kanoa Igarashi, who never really got going.
There is a glee in it. “Listen to me,” people say, “giving out about the judging of the gymnastics floor routine, and I haven’t looked at a gymnastics floor routine since Olga Korbut was a lass!”
It remains one of the great mysteries of life, why we take such intense interest in sports which otherwise burble along in relative obscurity outside the Games of the Olympiad.
There is the fact that it is the Olympics, with all that signifies. There is a certain amount of nationalism involved too, he says, while cursing Wang of Chinese Taipei who, as I write, is beating our brave Nhat Nguyen in the badminton. Damn you, Wang.
But it’s more than that. It takes people out of themselves. People like to feel different, just for a little while. It’s like the old man at the beach in the sunny weather. He may be in his string vest and trousers rolled up to the knee, but in his head he’s David Hasselhoff.
Basically, we have all gone on holiday to the Olympics.
And this year more than any other, the Olympics provide a sense of escape our actual holidays cannot. Without leaving the house, we can get that feeling of getting away from it all not even slurping 99s on the Wild Atlantic Way can provide.
Like any exotic holiday, attempting to speak the language is part of it. Watching the rowing one morning, my wife asked me how the Irish guys were getting on.
“Third. But it’s the repechage,” I replied.
The repechage? What am I like?
But suddenly there’s no stopping me. I’m talking about the stroke rate in the lightweight double sculls, not to be confused with the regular double sculls or, indeed, God forbid, the coxless pair.
It’s like the way a halting request to a barman for ‘dos cervezas, por favor’ yields the confidence to debate with the man the merits of the Real Madrid defence in perfect pidgin Spanish. A lack of self-consciousness takes hold. There is nobody to judge you here. Go for it.
You start to realise that the Olympic Games are 33 sports divided by a common tongue. Immersing yourself in each sport’s arcane terminology feels like wandering around the cathedrals of some pretty European city.
Turn on the Taekwondo and the commentator explains that fighters are penalised (even though the sport involves kicking your opponent in the head, there are rules) by the referee calling ‘Gam-Jeom!’. Pretty soon you’re shouting ‘That’s Gam-Jeom!’ like you’re watching a Saturday evening gameshow hosted by Danny Dyer called ‘Gam-Jeom!’.
Judo players battle each other by trying to score an ippon, sometimes settling for a waza-ari. “It can’t always be ippon after ippon,” a commentator muses during one tight battle, “sometimes you have to grind it out with waza-ari.” Ain’t that the truth, brother.
The words that the different sports use tell you about their history. The martial arts glossary speaks of ancient rites conducted in mystical dojos. Rowing and sailing are replete with nautical terms, coxswains, and tacking and rigging, that evoke Horatio Hornblower and derring-do on the high seas.
Surfing makes no attempt to hide its dudishness: Ferreira’s stance is officially classified as ‘Goofy’ and commentators are happy to commend good execution as ‘gnarly’ or, indeed, ‘radical’.
Gymnastics venerates its competitors by naming moves after them, like ‘reverse Yurchenko with a twist’ (these can also sound like how you might assassinate a disloyal Politburo member).
Travel broadens the mind and you feel you are learning something. Every so often you will chance upon the more familiar sports, like tennis, football, or golf. This is awkward. It’s like going down to breakfast on the first morning in some far-flung destination to find a family in Kilkenny jerseys sitting opposite. People who watch the normal sports in the Olympics are like people who eat roast beef dinners in Mediterranean resorts. Time and a place, please.
Like any holiday fling, that it is fleeting only makes it sweeter. We know it won’t last forever; it can’t. We will wake up some morning soon and Hazel Irvine won’t be gently prodding us toward some Rhythmic Gymnastics highlights.
We will be back to the humdrum, arguing about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Dubs having too much money. The twinkly-eyed boxing analysis of Eric Donovan will be a memory; Roy Keane looms like a bearded cloud. On transfer deadline day will we remember the breezy confidence of Mona McSharry? Charlotte Dujardin and her Extended Trots?
It could be that the Olympics are a way of taking a holiday from sport, by watching sport. Relax. Live a little. Enjoy it, because tomorrow, it’s the big one. Women’s trampoline final day.
What’s that, you’re an expert in it? Course you are.