Monday 18 August 2008

Day 10: Hellhound on my trail

I have an awful lot of stuff to say about Olympic happenings today, so this is likely to be a disordered brain dump. But try to bear with it, because Sport Is Important™. So, I've had a big poo and a really troublingly lengthy after-lunch nap (which meant I missed the end of the Women's Pole Vault final. Bugger. Bugger.) and I'm now ready for my marathon.

It's Day 10 at the Olympics, which means I refuse to watch Hazel Irvine's studio links without wearing x-ray specs. The big news from Beijing was China's face of the Games, Liu Xiang, pulling out of the 110 metres hurdles heats with an Achilles tendon injury. This, we are informed, has sent much of China into shock and mourning. A fact that I am willing to take with more than a pinch of salt, given the fact they said the same thing about British people when Princess Diana died. Nevertheless, it's a major blow for the hosts. The idea of the athletics as "the proper Olympics" is a fairly pervasive one, and Liu was their one big medal hope. Liu was the reigning Olympic champion at 110m hurdles as well as its World Champion and World Record holder, so it's a big loss - his medal was pretty well bolted on. It's odd the way sport works; that a country feels robbed and cheated of one gold medal even in spite of having already secured 35 in other disciplines.

Nevertheless, it happens. It happened yesterday here, but on a smaller scale and without Claire Balding sobbing at all: Paula Radcliffe's heroic failure gained higher billing in headlines round-ups than some successes for lower profile athletes. One such athlete who experienced this particular fate was Rebecca Romero. Rebecca Romero is my new sporting hero. Now, I know that I spend most of the time here taking the piss. But I'm quite serious on this point. What reached me from Romero is not her gold medal success, or the piece of history she made, but her reaction to it.

The British are a funny lot. We are just about willing to indulge tears of celebration and positively sustained by the tears of the gallant loser. But they have to be our winners and our losers. In athletes from other countries, commentators seem at best amused and at worst bewildered and uncomfortable. Cesar Cielo Finho is a Brazilian swimmer who won the 50 metres freestyle - swimmings version of the 100m sprint - last week. On the podium he sobbed his heart out. I found it very touching and, more importantly, totally human and totally relatable. The commentators, however, seemed at a loss. After Brazil's outstanding national anthem finished playing, they tittered their way through a few utterly misplaced platitudes about him having "his Gazza moment", and questioning just how embarrassed he would be in years to come when he looked back at footage of the moment. What utter rubbish, I thought. He'll look back and say that he was the Olympic champion and that he was very proud. What made this worse is that one of the commentary team had welled up watching the replay of Rebecca Adlington's second gold medal, with his commentary on it, in the studio. Double standards ahoy. The massive tit.

Rebecca Romero didn't cry - not, at least, until she was on the podium. But her celebration was so exceptional it reached clean out of the screen and grabbed me. THIS, this is what it means to be Olympic champion. This is the reason sport makes your hair stand on end. Romero was a silver medalist in Athens, a member of the Quadruple Sculls rowing team. Chasing something within her, a rage perhaps. Running against what she described afterwards yesterday as the demons, she changed to a completely different discipline - 3 km pursuit cycling - and rode into the history books as only the second woman in history to achieve two Olympic medals in different sports.

I love the pursuit cycling. For those who don't know, it's the one where competitors start on opposite sides of the arena and chase each other down. The one who finishes the distance closer to the other is the winner. It's very exciting, combining speed, drama and - with the chase aspect - moustache-twirling levels of movie melodrama. What Rebecca Romero offered was a cherry on the cake. As the cheers died down - the British fans who have filled the velodrome most likely all exhausted and/or hoarse after several days of near-perpetual cheering (not to mention the fact that in Romero's success was failure for the silver medalist, her Team GB fellow Wendy Houvenaghel) - a slight hush descends. Romero, slowing down from her run and still soaring round the track faster than most Virgin Trains, punched the air and screamed.

This was no girly exhortation. This was a roar from the depths of her being. You could hear her soul. It was a noise from the pure depths of hell. It made it obvious that sporting success isn't just winning a game, but a way to find your own humanity within yourself. I'm sure that if I ever achieved anything even remotely comparable, I would do exactly what she did. I had never heard of Rebecca Romero before yesterday. Now, in a strange way, I feel like I know her. If you're reading this blog in the UK, you will be able to see what I've been prattling on about here.

Today's sports

In a hectic day, I spent far too much time watching sport. At breakfast time, I watched the Women's Triathlon. Which was insane, insane I tell you. Any one of those disciplines would be more than sufficient to make me actually die, but these women were virtually push each other out of their way in the hurry to cycle 40 kilometres, having just been swimming for 20 minutes. The winner was Australia's Emma Snowsill, who was probably very tired at the end. Britain had two competitors in the race, one of whom - 18-year old Hollie Avil - had been struck down with the shits in the days leading up to the event and was forced to pull out of the race during the cycling element. Which is fair enough. I shat myself just watching it. Besides, she was knackered out, against a world class field and her stomach must have been boiling furiously.

At moments of equanimity such as this, I have to also congratulate Paula Radcliffe for her marathon performance yesterday. A lot of people I know, myself included, don't particularly like Radcliffe. It's hard to know why, but there you go. I do, however, respect her abilities and am fairly sure that being labelled a quitter in Athens must have been difficult to take. Why else would a woman with a broken leg run a marathon, just to prove something to herself?

Congratulations must also go, incidentally, to the commentator on the triathlon, Australian Greg Bennett. His commentary was measured and informative, and pleasingly free of any notable bias in spite of the fact that his fellow countrywoman was winning the race, a few positions ahead of Laura Bennett, his own actual real-life wife.

I also watched the Women's Gymnastics Asymmetric Bars final, featuring British world champion, the Nosferatu-me-do Beth Tweddle. I had hoped to do an in-depth report on it here, but I rapidly realised it was a battle I could not win. Whilst as a spectacle it was truly magnificent, as a sport it left me cold. The judges (yes, them again) seemed to be marking in an entirely arbitrary way that even some of the rival competitors seemed taken aback by. With me in the chair, I'd have given a joint-gold medal to seven of the eight competitors, with a silver for Dariya Zgoba of Ukraine. Because she was the only one who fell off. Now, that I can understand.

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