Walking through Stratford on a recent summer’s evening, I saw the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park full of young people. The sight of a well-maintained public space fulfilling its intended purpose gave me a warm glow: so many teenagers energising the place, a multi-ethnic advert for London’s Olympic legacy. Then I spotted the police horses and a small gang trying to force open the door to the café toilets, and realised I was in the middle of a flashmob water-pistol fight, like the one that had vandalised Hyde Park. Not for the first time in my career as a sportswriter, it had turned out that I didn’t really know what I was watching.
You could say the same of the Olympics. Are we witnessing a golden era in sporting history, a time when human bodies are able to push themselves to limits that even Zeus’s mates might have balked at? Or are we watching sports day at the Dr Frankenstein school for juiced-up zombies?
What makes it worse for the Games is that no other sporting event makes such big claims to represent the wonder of civilisation or the noblest aspects of the human race. Even football in all its vainglory has never been stupid enough to pretend it is some sort of metaphor for our quest to better ourselves.
My grandmother likes to say “it’s always a few who ruin it for the rest,” sighing with the weary demeanour of a woman who has spent too many hours watching Hollyoaks as if it’s a documentary. Sport’s problem – as everything from the Tour de France to Russia’s Athletics Federation has proved – is that it is not just the few. Not any more. Not in a multi-billion-dollar industry where rewards rest entirely on the needle-shard of a chance that you can go faster, higher or stronger than the next person.
At times it feels as though whole institutions are rotten. Doping, corruption, the slick trail of backhanders and backroom injections, it is all turning out to be endemic to our favourite entertainment – a parasite that has become almost more powerful than its host. And, as the Olympics come looming overhead, like one of those giant alien battleships in Independence Day, we wonder just how benevolent they still are. All that corporate money, all those opaque bidding processes. All that political angst as we wrestle medals out of the hands of suspiciously ripped champions.
Should we embrace our cynicism and hold all athletes in suspicion? The weekend of the Anniversary Games, held at London’s Olympic Stadium, I was lucky enough to find myself in the company of a number of former Olympians and Paralympians, all now retired. They were off duty, reminiscing with each other about past Games, sharing the things they no longer missed about training (early starts, having to eat seven times a day, enforced sobriety). The conversation turned eventually – inevitably – to drug testing.
One of the sportspeople remembered the frustrated hours he used to spend waiting for a particular team-mate who struggled to pee on demand. Another recalled the alarm that went off on her phone every single day to remind her to submit her whereabouts for the testers. All talked about the whoosh of panic that would pass through them when they realised they had not informed Wada of a change of training schedule.
A former gymnast said that it had never even occurred to them that their competitors might be doping. The others were incredulous. “Really?” asked someone who had made their name in track and field. “Whenever anyone does anything out of the ordinary in athletics, we assume they’re dirty.” And I realised that even elite athletes, like the rest of us, must grapple with one of the most difficult dilemmas facing the sports fan – whether to believe in the good in people or the bad.
The Olympic movement – and any one of us who like a bit of handball – are now required to hold two impossible opposites in tension: an ideal of honest striving to be the best we can be, and the reality of our tendency to exploit, manipulate, deceive others and delude ourselves in order to achieve that goal. The best and basest of human nature circling each other endlessly, creating a vortex of hype and disappointment.
How do we avoid getting sucked into this whirlpool? We turn our eyes from the podium and the patriotism. We stop listening, for just a moment, to the stirring video anthems and the emotive backstories. And we focus, however briefly, on the vast ordinariness of the majority of people competing at the Games – remembering their shy bladders and their lifts from their parents and their Shirley Temples at the bar. We hold on to the knowledge that, beneath it all, they are just a person who really, really likes running or jumping or throwing odd-shaped items into an empty field. And that while they still want to do that – and do it clean – it is a worthwhile pursuit.