The Fall of Olympia

I doubt it’s escaped your notice, but the Olympic Games have just concluded in typically sun-kissed Rio de Janeiro. Depending on your perspective or predisposition, the Games were either a marvellous success or a shameful manifestation of the worst excesses of modern sport. Take your pick. I must concede I’ve rather fallen out of love with the Olympics. Like most of us, I grew up with the Games as a constant backdrop to seemingly endless childhood summers. Rose-tinted recollections of Carl Lewis, Linford Christie, and Wayne McCullough are permanently etched in my mind’s eye. The Olympics, with its fabled champions of a bygone era, were superb-or at least they seemed to be. Elite sport combined with mesmerising, hypnotic spectacle. It was one hell of a combination, transfixing sports fans once every four years. Even the poor relation (the infinitely less prestigious Winter Olympics) was worth a butcher’s. Bob sleighing, ice-hockey, and Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards. Ah, the memories!

I didn’t see much of it this time. At least, nothing of any note. I might have grabbed a few of rounds of boxing featuring two blokes I hadn’t heard of (the lack of headgear still looks weird to me). But that’s about it. There wasn’t anything else. Nada. Granted, the time difference didn’t help, but I’m not sure it would have mattered if the Olympics was happening across the street. It doesn’t interest me. Like Wimbledon or Formula 1, The Olympics now fall into the category of irrelevance for me. Yes all are massive events, but I no longer see any appeal or value in them. What’s the point in watching sport if the action leaves you apathetic at best, bored senseless at worst?

“But you used to like the Olympics”, I hear you yell. What happened? Well, in my view, cheating and the chronic misuse of performance-enhancing drugs have ruined the Olympics. They’ve destroyed the credibility and reputation of the Games. Of course, there’s nothing new here. Cheating in sport has been around since time immemorial and the abuse of drugs has long been a feature of elite competition. But why believe in an event when you know there are probably scores of competitors cheating? It happens at every Games. Detection and sanction may be deferred (if the wily cheats get caught at all), but we all know it’s going on. History confirms as much. The trouble is: cheating destroys the illusion. Much like when a magician reveals his methodology, their aura disappears. There isn’t the same interest when you know how the trick is done.

I’m revealing my age again, but I’m old enough to remember Ben Johnson. For those of a modern vintage, Johnson was the golden boy of the 100 metres; the king of track-and-field athletics. In Seoul ’88, Johnson was the poster boy, the Usain Bolt of his generation, the biggest name in sprinting. A real superstar. True to form, Johnson romped home in the 100m final, leaving a trail of competitors in his wake, Lewis and Christie included. A new world record was clocked by the superstar, a breathtaking 9.79 seconds. The trouble was, Johnson was cheating. Three days after the final, he was disqualified after irregularities were found in blood and urine samples. The Canadian sprinter was subsequently stripped of his gold medal, with Lewis promoted to champion in his stead. A remarkable turn of events that lifted the lid on the use of anabolic steroids in sport. A line in the sand? Surely, such a high-profile case inspired change and eradicated the cheats? Alas not. Cheating has continued and the Games regularly tarnished.

That’s not to say that the IOC hasn’t attempted to come to grips with the problem. The establishment of WADA in 1999 created a coherent mechanism for stamping out doping in sport. And the anti-doping body has achieved a measure of success. However, cheats are still regularly unmasked and athletes are failing tests. The heartfelt denials are meaningless. Lance Armstrong was the undisputed superstar of cycling until he finally came clean, so to speak. Cheating blights the Olympics, casting an ugly stain on the Games. The unmasking often happens years after the conclusion of competitive action, but that fact shouldn’t dim our indignation. Consider this. The Telegraph reported recently that in excess of 60 competitors from London 2012 might have been doping. The allegations stem  from retesting of athletes’ samples; with 23 competitors affected by the results- 39 athletes having already had results annulled from the London games. And London was supposed to be the most successful Olympics of all-time?

I have no hard evidence to support my assertion, but I believe the vast majority of athletes are clean. However, the reputation of the Olympics will suffer until the doping issue is systematically and permanently addressed. Of course cheating isn’t the only issue to afflict the Olympics. Ticket pricing in Rio seems to have gone awry-the sight of empty venues didn’t help the spectacle. Many also felt the judging of the boxing competition at times left a lot to be desired.  Such allegations hardly bolster public confidence. Assessing boxing matches is undoubtedly a highly subjective business. That said, it’s unfortunate so many observers were dissatisfied with boxing results. Outside the competitive arena, the public arrest of 71-year old Irish official Pat Hickey in a bathrobe was as unedifying as it was shocking.  So what of the future? No doubt the Olympic Games will continue, but it’s getting harder to argue the case for sustainability. The fact is the Games are typically loss making enterprises for the host nations, and the only tangible Olympic legacy  is often debt. It can even be argued that it’s unethical for troubled economies to spend hundreds of millions on a glorified circus. The modern Games are something of an anachronism and debate rages regarding how they will evolve. My view? While giddy observers are revelling in talk of medal tables and closing ceremonies, I’m just glad it’s over. Now the circus has left town, real sport can resume.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

I woke early on Saturday to the sad news, news we were expecting, but no less awful for that. Muhammad Ali is gone. The most revered sportsman of all time. The Greatest. Despite having spent the last thirty years being ravaged by the debilitating condition that is Parkinson’s Disease, his passing still comes as a shock. Isn’t that the way it always works, though? Somehow, regardless of the relentless inevitability of death, we don’t expect our heroes to die. No matter how many times it happens, we find it hard to accept the mortality of heroic and iconic people.

It’s part of the human condition. Each of us are programmed to view our heroes as transcendent, quasi-immortal figures. Even the grim certainty of death is unable to penetrate this cruel illusion. Such deception of the mind is especially common with individuals as iconic as Ali. We just can’t accept they’re gone. It doesn’t seem right, plausible even, that someone so superhuman and powerful is as mortal as the rest of us. Even when we’re confronted with inescapable evidence of their fragility, as we had been  through Ali’s cruel, chronic illness, we find it difficult to accept the merciless truth. I suppose this syndrome is one of the reasons people still occasionally see Elvis in chip shops. Heroes just aren’t supposed to leave us. And that’s why it devastates us when they do.

I’m too young to remember Muhammad Ali fight. Instead, I came to him through my father. My Dad is the biggest Ali fan imaginable, Muhammad Ali is his all-time hero. Like many of that generation, Dad seemed to regard Ali as the personification of sporting perfection. Therefore, I grew up with stories of the legend. The iconic fights, the trash talk, the peerless record of achievement. As a young lad, I heard about Ali’s brutal three fights with Joe Frazier and of course the big daddy of them all: the Rumble in the Jungle when Ali dethroned the mammoth George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title. The Rumble intrigued me the most. Forget the amiable figure with the grill. Foreman was an utterly terrifying pugilist in 1974. My Dad would regale me with stories of this gigantic, intimidating man who seemed virtually indestructible.  And yet the immovable object was indeed defeated, Ali employing his controversial and innovative “Rope-a-Dope” strategy to fell the hitherto unbeaten Foreman. I subsequently watched the fight myself in later years, and the Rumble ingrained the Ali legend in my mind.

When I discovered more about the man, though, what really interested me was his life outside the ring. I’ve always been fascinated by Ali’s activism; the name change, his strident opposition to racism in all its ugly forms, and his courageous refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War. For me, these convictions and crusades truly illuminate Ali the man. His conscientious objection to  Vietnam, moreover, defined Ali’s career as much as anything else. His opposition to the controversial war cost Ali three years of championship bouts at a time when he was entering the peak of his athletic powers. The enforced sabbatical undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the ascendant star. How good would Ali have been otherwise? It’s a sobering question! That Ali came back so spectacularly from this fighting exile to enjoy the most celebrated moments of his career in the 1970s tells us all we need to know about this remarkable man.

What about Ali the campaigner? Societal achievement can be hard to quantify, but the champion arguably did more for African-American rights and equality than any other individual. Long before Barack Obama, Ali was often a minority voice in the wilderness, shining a light on America’s inequalities and providing a vision of pride, integrity, and achievement to which millions of African-Americans could aspire. The champion had his faults, but I think it’s difficult for the modern mind to appreciate just how courageous and prescient Ali’s fearless stance against racism was. Of course one can be churlish and suggest that the sometimes vitriolic nature of Ali’s activism actually fostered division, but this view fundamentally misses the point. In becoming a global hero to millions of people of every class, colour, and creed, Ali promoted an inclusiveness that transcended petty human division. Ali’s mass appeal, in fact, helped eradicate prejudice in a way that legions of elected representatives can only dream of. And his vocal, unapologetic opposition to racism and inequality paved the way for the integrated American society millions take for granted today. This inspiration was felt throughout the world. That is Muhammad Ali’s lasting legacy, as far as I’m concerned. 

In sporting terms,  Ali boasted an aura and charisma that matched his supremely electrifying talent. Many have since imitated, but no-one has come close to generating the box office appeal so effortlessly exuded by the legendary  fighter. Boxers like Chris Eubank and Naseem Hamed attempted to captivate the sporting public with a crude simulation of Ali’s theatrics, but their performances were less than convincing. When it came to charisma, charm, and humour, there was only one Muhammad Ali. If illness hadn’t reduced him so savagely, this man could have done anything. Movie star, lecturer, President, who knows what he might have been if Parkinson’s Disease hadn’t intervened? I think that sense of loss one of the reasons Ali’s illness and death are so galling. We know we’ll never see his like again.

As if all that wasn’t enough, any fair summation of the man must also account for his humanity and character. For all Ali’s unprecedented exploits in the ring, the three-time Heavyweight Champion’s later years proclaimed him as a universal role model who set the bravest of examples. The proud and dignified manner in which the great man handled his illness speaks volumes for Ali’s character: he had integrity, fortitude, and humility in abundance. How ironic that Parkinson’s robbed him of that priceless ability to speak out, to elucidate his thoughts in the articulate way we were used to. In a strange way, though, Ali’s more muted appearances in recent years highlighted  the bravery and humanity of the man in a way that words simply cannot capture. Sometimes there are just no words capable of defining the human spirit. It’s horrible to think that any person should suffer the cruel symptoms inflicted by a degenerative disease like Parkinson’s. Nevertheless, patients of this cruel illness-and others like it-couldn’t have had a better advocate and role model to highlight their suffering. The great man has gone. How sad we’ve finally lost him. He has left us with a tremendous legacy, though. Muhammad Ali was the greatest. In more ways than one.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

First blog post

This is the start of a new journey. For the past few years, I have been writing material for a variety of websites. As anyone familiar with my work knows, I write primarily about sport, particularly rugby, and have been lucky enough to have been published by some fantastic websites. Although I plan to continue this work, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about branching out into something a bit different. Writing for others, although extremely rewarding, is by its nature a restrictive process. As I’m sure a lot of writers can identify with, it can be difficult to convey your own thoughts while working within the parameters of publication. As well as the essential restrictions in respect of word count etc., you are also hampered by the need to please editors and sub-editors in relation to the copy you’ve submitted. While this is certainly a worthwhile skill to master, it can often result in a published article that has been changed substantially from the piece you’ve actually written. Although the basic point of the piece usually remains intact, something as subtle as a word being changed here or there can  radically alter the tone or essence of the article you’ve written. Even something as simple as the headline/title being amended can change the whole perception of an article from the perspective of the reader. Of course editors are well within their rights to change copy in any way they feel appropriate, but it can be a restrictive process for the writer.

What I like about blogging is that it grants me the freedom to write on topics that interest me without the need to redact and edit the material at the insistence of an editor. Of course, there is nothing stopping me from writing for other publications (as I will continue to do, time permitting), but this blog allows me to write sincerely in my own words, without the need to worry about the restrictions of space or tailoring my copy to the meet the requirements of a certain readership. Although I may be writing for a much smaller audience (if indeed there are those kind enough to follow my musings!), the words presented will be mine and mine alone. For a long time, I resisted the idea of a blog because I felt it somehow meant more to be published by other outlets (and it is undoubtedly a privilege), but I find myself increasingly attracted by the freedom and opportunity a blog permits. It also enables me to branch out into other areas that I’ve long wanted to write about such as music, film, history etc. And I see this blog as complementing rather than replacing my existing work. A new journey begins, then. Whatever else it is, I hope it won’t be boring!