THE OLYMPICS AND ME, JULY 22
‘ The most impor tant thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.’ So said Pierre de Coubertin, the French educator partly responsible for the revival of the Olympics in 1894. And that attitude probably explains why the French have never done that well at the Olympics.
I’m all for the ‘it matters not if you won or lost but how you played the game’ school of sporting ethos. But in the end, as Thierry Henry once said: ‘Sometimes in football you have to score goals.’
Winning isn’t, and should never be, a dirty word. Everyone should strive to win every single day of their life. At whatever they do. Otherwise, what’s the point? I have an in-built abhorrence of anyone who settles for mediocrity at anything.
I don’t care if any of my three sons fails to win a sporting event. But if I think they haven’t TRIED to win, there’s hell to pay. ( Fortunately, they’re just as barbarically competitive as me, so this rarely happens).
My first real introduction to the Olympics couldn’t have been more dramatic, newsworthy or sensational — on and off the track.
I was seven years old in 1972 when Munich hosted the Games, an event that became infamous for the slaughter of nine Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian gunmen. It was an atrocity so monstrous that it shook the very foundations of the world’s greatest sporting event. And opened my young, innocent eyes to the brutal, harsh reality of terrorism. A blight that, thanks to the activities of the IRA, Al Qaeda and others, has dominated my personal and professional life ever since.
But there was also some extraordinary sporting magic in Munich. Tiny Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut lighting up the stage, the lithe bearded Finnish runner Lasse Viren fending off a pack of huge black-vested Kiwis to win the 5,000m and 10,000m. Another Soviet, Valeri Borzov, storming to victory in the 100m and 200m after the two top American sprinters, incredibly, missed the start time for the quarter finals.
And most memorably of all, the great Mark Spitz becoming the first person in history to win seven gold medals at a single games. With his handlebar moustache, big grin, ready charm and supreme confidence, Spitz was a true allAmerican poster-boy action hero even before he got in the pool. Once he touched
‘The 1972 Munich atrocity shook the world’s greatest sports event to its core. But there was extraordinary sporting magic there too’
the water, he became an unstoppable, unbeatable machine.
I loved his attitude — ‘Swimming isn’t everything,’ he said. ‘Winning is.’
The Olympics enthused me for months afterwards — I wanted to swim like Spitz and run like Borzov. Just as millions of children this time round will want to swim like Phelps, and run like Usain Bolt. The Olympics are, sel fevidently, primarily about great athletes performing to the best of their ability.
But more than that, they are about a special kind of Churchillian spirit, often born from adversity.
Paula Radcliffe is a great runner but when she quit the Athens marathon three miles from the finish, sobbing on the grass by the side of the road, I wasn’t quite as enamoured with her ‘amazing courage’ as everyone else seemed to be. For me, true courage comes in the form of a man like Derek Redmond. Who could forget him being helped over the 400m line by his dad after pulling a hamstring — weeping in emotional anguish and physical pain but determined to finish?
Or Tanzania’s John Stephen Akhwari, who dislocated his knee after falling in the Mexico Olympics marathon, but kept going, bandaged and in agony, also determined to finish. A whole hour after the race was decided, Akhwari entered the stadium to sparse applause from the few remaining spectators.
Nothing has ever illustrated the supreme self-sacrifice and drive of an Olympic athlete more than this man.
Afterwards, he explained simply: ‘My country didn’t send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish it.’
The same kind of burning, almost inexplicable, desire and pride lies in many athletes. I sat opposite cycling champion Victoria Pendleton at a dinner after she won gold in Beijing. ‘You must be feeling fantastic,’ I said. ‘Not really,’ she replied, unsmiling.