The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Britain’s sporting heroes can inspire a generation
HAS there ever been a more muted Olympic Games than the one that started last week? Delayed by a year, held in a country where most people want it cancelled, and almost empty stands for an opening ceremony beset by scandal.
The entire kick-off was put in doubt when the ceremony’s director was dismissed days before the opening, following archive footage of him making jokes about the Holocaust. Kentaro Kobayashi’s sacking swiftly followed the resignation of a composer over allegations he bullied disabled classmates in his youth.
And let’s not forget that in February, the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori, was forced to quit over sexist remarks that even he admitted were ‘inappropriate’.
Bullying, misogyny and antiSemitism – hardly living up to the values of the Olympic spirit.
Add to that controversies over a swimmer barred from having her breastfeeding son with her in the Olympic village, attempts to stop frisky young athletes potentially transmitting more than Covid by providing them with cardboard beds that only support one person’s weight, and poor handling of the status of transgender athletes qualifying for women’s events, it’s no wonder that major brands, such as Toyota, have pulled all advertising associated with the event.
The company’s Jun Nagata explained: ‘There are many issues with these Games that are proving difficult to be understood.’
Contrast, too, the empty scenes inside the Olympic stadium with the scenes of protest outside it. A poll showed only 22 per cent of Japanese people agree with the event going ahead, and hundreds of protesters gathered outside Tokyo’s Shinjuku station last Sunday demanding cancellation.
Japan’s vaccine rollout has been slow, and less than a third of the population have received jags. There is a Covid spike in Tokyo, and protester Karoi Todo summed up the mood of his group, declaring: ‘Infections are increasing. To do the Olympics is unforgivable.’
The build-up prompted one BBC correspondent to opine that the Tokyo Games were the most controversial ever. I know hyperbole sells, but let’s not be silly. I do wonder if, when the luckless reporter got off air, his producer gently reminded him about the Berlin Games in 1936, which were projected to be a presentational coup for the ruling Nazi party – until black athlete Jesse Owens won multiple golds and became the face of the Games.
I love the Olympics and hope the pace picks up from this slowburn start. We saw from the recent Euro football championships how much people were crying out to leave the horrors and anxieties of the past year behind and really immerse themselves in following the tournament.
And, where the Euros celebrates the best of just one sport, the Olympics and Paralympics celebrate hundreds of disciplines and events. From sailing to skateboarding, swimming to shooting, archery to athletics, you see people of all body shapes and talents vying for excellence.
The bravery, discipline, sportsmanship and teamwork on display at every Olympics are values that transcend time or nation. The stories of triumph over adversity teach resilience and inspire future generations.
I remember every Games since Seoul 88 – even buying myself a new, bigger TV for Sydney 2000 – and there has not been one which hasn’t had a moment that has reduced me to tears.
Whether it was Derek Redmond being helped over the 400m line by his dad in Barcelona after rupturing his hamstring, Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani setting the slowest ever time in the 100m freestyle swimming – but crucially finishing – after never previously seeing an Olympic-sized pool in his native Equatorial Guinea, or witnessing Katherine Grainger finally win gold in London after silvers at three successive Games, there’s always something to catch the throat and make the spirit soar.
For a season, those who struggle unheralded in smaller sports such as fencing, canoeing or water polo can become global stars. Even those from ‘professional’ sports, where the money far outstrips the medals, know the value of the Olympics.
Team GB Rio flag carrier Andy Murray is the only man to have won two tennis singles gold medals and says: ‘The Olympics is for me the biggest sporting event out there. [My gold medals] sit right there next to Wimbledon titles.’
When exceptional athletes have trained their whole lives for a single event, it is worth the rest of us tuning in. So, let’s get behind the Games, whatever the teething problems they have had.