The playing of sport is a great public good—even if I don’t happen to do it myself. But that’s not what the Olympics will be aboutby Sam Leith / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Warning: just watching sport does not lead to a healthier lifestyle
One of the biggest stories of 2011 will be something that hasn’t happened. I’m talking about the phoney war: the pre-Olympics. The buzz—I know people use this term to convey excitement, but it makes me think of killer bees spoiling a picnic—has already started and mark me, by the middle of spring it’ll be deafening.
We’ll have the rows about tickets (too many for foreigners, too expensive, too many corporate tickets, forgeries, booking systems collapsing). We’ll have the rows about security (grave-faced investigative reporters infiltrating the Olympic village with suitcases full of Silly Putty and fuse wire; police chiefs calling for more money; security services leaking details of foiled bomb plots to the red-tops). We’ll have the rows about transport (Boris bikes disappearing off the streets, unions threatening to bring the Jubilee Line to a halt; shrieks of rage about lane closures).
There’ll be all the construction stuff, too: budgets will bust and IT systems will fall over; this swimming pool will spring a leak; that stadium will turn out to have been accidentally built out of butter. The discovery of a colony of rare and protected newts will bring construction of a state-of-the-art volleyball pitch to a dead halt. There’ll be poignant pictures on television of ninth-generation east end residents, dressed as pearly kings and queens, being carted off in tumbrels so their houses can be demolished to make way for an indoor basketball court. And everyone will have an opinion on plans for the opening ceremony.
Not that I mean to sound unenthusiastic. Even those of us who don’t like athletics will thoroughly enjoy all this. But this pre-Olympic moment, with the nation poised in its Speedos on the wobbly end of the diving board, seems a chance to air my theory that there are three distinct things about sport—and the connection between the three isn’t at all organic or straightforward.
First, there is the idea of sport—and the Olympics are all about this. In this account, the International Olympic Committee is not a private company with a shocking history of corruption masquerading as a UN committee in a tracksuit, which passes off one of the most nakedly political global boondoggles of our age as “above politics.” It is instead the torchbearer of the Corinthian ideal, or the Olympic spirit (and passing this on to the little…