It is the Olympics. I like the Olympics. I mostly like the athletics, but in a dull moment I will watch pretty much anything. In the Winter Olympics I endeavour to watch absolutely everything bar curling and short-track speed skating.
You see, the thing about sport is that while it adds extra interest to have a technical understanding of what is going on, it isn't actually necessary. It's fairly easy in a lot of events (not sailing) to tell who is doing better, even if you can't really tell why. Tennis idiots like me could see this year that though the Wimbledon final was going with serve, Murray was winning his games more easily and so was going to win. It's like ballet: I'm sure that it adds to the experience of watching Swan Lake to grasp the technical finesse with which the prima ballerina executes those jumps, whatever they are, but personally I just enjoy the music and the spectacle. I can tell that that series of jumps was incredibly difficult and visually spectacular and harder than the jumps the chorus did. That suffices, as long as there's a plot. And the great thing about sport is there is always a plot. It may be a plot I don't give a damn about (most football*** and golf), but there's usually a plot, and it's a plot that you can follow.
Sometimes the plot is a simple one: how far can I throw this discus? But within even that simple plot there is strategy and risk and human outcome**** and a narrative that can be gripping. Take last night's men's 10,000m. There's an argument that with Mo Farah as favourite to win and retain his 2012 title, plus two World Championships in between, this would be a dull race, but that would be to mistake the outcome for the sole interest. For as well as the outcome what matters is how the race was won. In this case, the question of how the rest of the field can attempt to beat the unbeatable. What must they do? Knowing what they must do, can they do it? Often no, when the slim chance of victory comes with the high risk of sacrifice.
As a fan of cross-country skiing, how to beat the unbeatable is great. You get to see the superb performer perform. You get to see the competition trying to win, and sometimes even succeeding, albeit not at the moment against Farah. They can only win by going early, but to go early risks all. How much do you need to understand the theory and tactics of distance running to appreciate the magnificence when Farah unleashes those spindleshank legs with such power? And that's only the plot of one race, within a season, within a decade, within the history of the sport, within a life, and each of those has a narrative - and that's before you get to the human interest element.****** I have to admit that when it comes down to it what I like about sport is the atavistic element of the hunt, the person ahead who is mercilessly hunted down. 100m is exciting, but it's short. 5000m, or multiple rounds, and you can chase and pursue and destroy. Absolutely it's fascinating and courageous when Etenesh Diro in the steeplechase heats runs the second half without a shoe, but the really exciting bit to me is someone who has got behind and has only one shoe and then has to run to overtake as many people as possible. The hunt is on again.
I can't throw, I can't jump, though once I could run a little, but I really like watching other people doing it.
*The free Sorbetto pattern. It would have been quick had I not decided to add sleeves (additional pattern on the internet), and then chosen to add cuffs to the sleeves. With the hem, neck, and setting-in one sleeve to go I decided that I would like to do a few other things this weekend. It will look good eventually.
**You can get an amazing amount of ironing done to a 50km time trial. There's a reason I haven't had an empty ironing basket since April.
***Even so I can acknowledge the epic quality of Leicester City's Premier League victory this year, with bonus 'second time farce' Gary Linekar's pants story.
****I never thought I gave a damn about the discus until I was watching yesterday, when it was won by surprisingly dapper German Christoph Harting, whose brother won in 2012, as the penultimate competitor in the final round. And then the silver medalist (Piotr Małachowski, a man who looks like a proper old-fashioned discus thrower), who must surely have thought he'd won, gave an impressive display of dealing with unexpectedly not winning with great dignity.*****
*****Unlike the US women's football goalie, whose comments on losing to Sweden were hilarious.
******For a supreme example of this, Jörgen Brink's infamous collapse in the 2003 cross-country skiing world championships men's relay. Vindicated a decade later when it turned out that he had a heart condition.
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