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‘ 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.

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