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Let the real games begin

The first week of the Olympics is little more than a series of warm-up exercises before the real thing: track and field.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Don’t you just love the Olympics? The glory, the tears, the choking, the drug cheating: all essential Olympian ingredients. But the first week of the Games always seems rather odd. It’s a kind of Phoney Olympics: a week-long series of warm-up exercises before the real war begins with the track-and-field events.

Okay, there’s the swimming, which is a kosher sport, but there are a fair amount of silly sports, too. I mean, synchronised diving? Do me a favour.

This year there’s been a ridiculous amount of British media hype surrounding 14-year-old wonderkid Tom Daley. So naturally, out of curiosity, we all watched the 10-metre synchronised diving competition on Monday. ‘I’m supporting Crystal Palace’, announced my daughter, who still hasn’t quite got the hang of this sporting allegiance business. ‘I’ve no idea what’s going on’, I confessed. ‘It’s all about minimising splash’, explained the missus who, overnight, seems to have become a diving aficionado. Of course, with the aid of the BBC’s slow-motion replay gizmo, it’s possible for us all to become armchair diving experts, prattling on about ‘elevation’, ‘degree of difficulty’ and ‘vertical entry’.

I can see the skill and technique in diving. But where’s the citius, altius, fortius? ‘Faster, higher, less splash’ doesn’t quite get the old Chariots of Fire tune going for me. And, whisper it, diving is also a bit gay. If they were jumping off a very high bit of the Great Wall of China into a paddling pool it might be a different matter. I’m afraid diving falls into the category of a pseudo-sport because the scoring system is so subjective. The same goes for synchronised swimming, dressage, and gymnastics. If an event requires a panel of judges to decide the technical or artistic merit of a manoeuvre, then it can’t be a sport.

Yes, you need judges in point-scoring sports, such as boxing, fencing or judo. But in these events, the role of the judge is simply to decide on objective facts – for example, whether a punch has been landed or a judo throw executed. During the synchronised springboard event on Wednesday, BBC Radio 5 commentator Karen Pickering complained that the judges were scoring the Chinese duo on their reputations and the crowd reaction rather than their technique.

British diver Nick Robinson-Baker, who missed out on a medal, denied that the judges had been biased, but conceded: ‘Diving is a subjective sport – we can’t do anything about the way the judges scored us.’ This problem simply wouldn’t arise in an orthodox race. You either cross the line first or you don’t. Diving might be an Olympic event but, as competitions go, it has far more in common with Strictly Come Dancing than the 100-metres sprint final.

And while we’re on the subject of deciding which events don’t belong at the Olympics, I’d also boot out football and tennis. These are both real sports, of course. However, their Olympic incarnations simply have no legitimacy. In both sports the most cherished prizes are elsewhere. Take the tennis tournament, for example. The top players, with an eye on the forthcoming US Open, will either go through the motions in second gear or else cry off. The football tournament is little better. It doesn’t even feature the best players as it’s essentially a youth tournament. Argentina are the reigning men’s champions but the notable absence of Brazil, Italy and Germany from the list of winners illustrates that the tournament isn’t taken very seriously.

The diving pool did at least showcase one great British sporting tradition: Olympic choking. After all the hype, Tom Daley and his partner Blake Aldridge came last in the synchronised diving competition. Their final manoeuvre was a highly entertaining girly spat, with double handbags, in which Daley had a go at his diving partner for phoning his mum during the competition and Aldridge criticised the 14-year-old for failing to perform.

As far as British diving’s performance director Steve Foley was concerned, it was simply a case of synchronised bottling. ‘What I’m reading is: it’s a cauldron, put the five rings in front of them and something changes’, said Foley. ‘What I’m seeing at the moment is an inexperienced team cracking under the Olympic pressure.’ Daley is still young and, in time, may learn to cope with the pressure. Aldridge, at 26, doesn’t have time on his side. He will probably only be remembered as the Bloke Who Phoned His Mum.

Still, it hasn’t all been a tale of British choking. The first week of the Games is usually a mixture of British failure and self-loathing in the pool competitions, combined with contrived hysteria over obscure sports in which only a handful of toffs and members of the armed forces compete – the sort of D-List events you’d normally send Garth Crooks to cover.

This year, however, Team GB has notched up two gold medals in proper events: cycling and swimming. Particularly impressive was Rebecca Adlington’s victory in the 400-metres freestyle. Not for the gushing flag-waving hysteria of the BBC commentators but for Adlington’s refreshingly competitive attitude. At first glance she appears to be a typical giggly 19-year-old with a penchant for designer shoes, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a steely winning mentality. Having just bagged an Olympic gold, what was Adlington’s immediate reaction? ‘I’m really disappointed with my time’, she said. Spoken like a true Olympian.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

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