The 2012 London Olympics are finally here and a nation doesn’t so much rejoice as try to figure out which bit is going to annoy them the most. Frontrunners include overall cost, expected traffic delays, border control mayhem, union strikes, corporate freebies, Seb Coe, empty seats, empty traffic lanes, security firms getting paid millions to secure nothing, students and OAP’s getting paid nothing to secure everyone. Moaning we are reliably told is a very British affair and while I like a good moan now and then, usually concerning popular culture, arguments for the perceived downside of staging the Olympics in this country bore me as much as the crap jokes about how entertaining the women’s beach volleyball will be (it’s women in bikinis, you can find lots of them on beaches around Europe, although possibly not as trim admittedly). There’s a very real sense that a lot of people, Daily Mail readers to be exact, wish the Olympics to be one great big shambles so they can delight in just how crap we all are at organising global events as though they are akin to setting up a vicar’s tea party in your back garden. I’ve no interest in seeing that; I want to see a great games hailed as the greatest ever with countless champagne moments that leaves a buzz for years to come. I want to see UK athletes lording it over the French, Germans, Russians and Aussies (I’ll leave the Americans and Chinese out of this as don’t want to get too carried away) as we bag a glut of medals. And I don’t even care if they all come in clay pigeon shooting or freestyle skateboarding. I want all that, but I also know that whatever does transpire it still won’t be as good as an 80’s Olympics. And here’s why…
It would be a pretty spurious argument that insisted boycotts make for a better Olympics, but what the boycotts of 1980 and 1984 did was intensify the spotlight of athletics and make it front and back page news. In short, sport became political, especially the Olympics. It was a reflection of the times and created a very neat good/bad aspect to sport. The good were those of us who had the freedom to watch T.J. Hooker while the bad were anyone who couldn’t buy a pair of Levi’s. Most western schoolchildren during the 80s were convinced that the Ruskies wanted to blow us all into smithereens. Sting even hoped they loved their children, which of course they didn’t because we all know Commies are heartless, mechanical bastards who like to eat small babies for breakfast washed down with neat vodka. Although the USA and Soviet Union spent nearly half a century staring each other down armed with copious missiles thankfully neither were mad enough to actually push the button, which meant that sport was often the only way of deciding who really was the superior country. Or it would have been where it not for the involvement of politics.
The USA refused to attend the 1980 Moscow games in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, something which seems quaintly funny, if not ridiculous, now. Only 80 countries were represented in Moscow with more than 60 following the USA’s lead and boycotting the games. Great Britain, somewhat surprisingly considering how much we follow the US like lapdogs these days, didn’t boycott. The final decision was left to the athletes themselves and clearly the likes of Brendan Foster and Geoff Capes had a strong desire to see Lenin’s Mausoleum and bread queues so off Team GB went. Although in a really crap and pointless protest they didn’t fly the Union Jack at the opening ceremony and instead chose to compete under the Olympic flag along with several other countries, which must have caused Leonid Brezhnev no end of sleepless nights. Or presumably it would have done if he wasn’t an alcoholic, chain-smoking sleeping pill addict. In fact he was probably more concerned with what to write in reply to the letter from Margi Clarke’s mate. Moscow was unique in many ways, the one and only to be held in the old Eastern Bloc after all, and we’re unlikely to see another so politicised. And despite the competition being weakened with the American absence there were an impressive 36 world records created and a white man won the 100m final, that’s unlikely to happen again either.
Predictably the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later followed by a further 14 Eastern Bloc countries and allies. Surprisingly the US wasn’t at war with anyone at the time, at least not overtly, so the excuse the Soviets gave for not turning up was the “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.” I think they left the bit out about you didn’t turn up to ours so we’ll be shagged if we’re turning up to yours. Whereas the Moscow Olympics appeared to be constantly played out against dark skies the Los Angeles Games were constantly bathed in searing sunshine. Despite the Americans laying the whole ‘aren’t-we-great’ nonsense on the rest of the world as they walked off with over 100 medals more than the second-placed country (surprisingly this was Romania who surprisingly stuck two fingers up to the Soviet Union and were the only Eastern Bloc country to head west) LA was a classic Olympics. It also had a man in a jet pack at the opening ceremony which felt a bit like you had stepped into the future, although this was balanced out with Lionel Ritchie performing a 9-minute version of ‘All Night Long’ at the closing ceremony, which felt a bit like you had stepped into purgatory.
Seoul in 1988 was equally brilliant. The time difference meant that you could watch the action over breakfast which made a welcome respite from Nick Owen and Timmy Mallett. Both the Soviet Union and USA turned up and we discovered that athletes took a lot of drugs. It had a genuine feel-good factor and also claimed the most shocking Olympian moment ever when Ben Johnson had his gold medal taken away for doping. Also, we finally learned that America wasn’t the bestest sporting nation on earth as they finished third in the medal table behind the Soviet Union and East Germany, two countries that ceased to exist by the time of the next Olympics. While Great Britain didn’t feature high up in any of the medal tables during the 80s we did prove pretty handy in track and field thanks to a handful of superstars, which leads me nicely on to my next point.
Someone recently asked me who I thought would win the Men’s 100 metres final. Naturally I replied “Usain Bolt”. This was followed by the 200 metres, to which I again replied, “Usain Bolt”. Then they mentioned the 400 metres to which I stopped thought about Roger Black for far longer than I’d like to and shrugged my shoulders before responding “Usain Bolt?” This carried on with every leading male track and field event and I just replied Usain Bolt to all of them. It turns out that he is the only athlete I know these days. Apart from Mo Farah, I’ve heard of him, but had to check which event he takes part in. This shocked me for a number of reasons. Firstly I was under the impression I liked athletics, yet I suddenly realised I hadn’t watched any since probably the last Olympics and secondly I once knew all the major stars of track and field with PB’s included. Nowadays there simply aren’t any major household athletes, besides Mr. Bolt of course, whereas during the 80s every event had at least one household name. They became a staple of primetime TV. The likes of ‘A Question of Sport’, ‘Wogan’ and ‘Through the Keyhole’ were crawling with them. Athletics was sexy in the 80s, up there with footy and cricket in terms of profile when the Olympics or World Championships came around. Christ, the Olympics even made hockey seem interesting for a little while when Britain won gold in 1988. Today athletes get blown out of the water by nomarks from reality TV in terms of mass appeal. Anyone who has seen that advert with Chris Hoy would probably understand why mind you, but ultimately I just don’t know 99.9% of the buggers who will be lining up to compete in London.
Off the top of my head without even wikipediaing anything I can think of a wealth of major 80s athletes…Ed Moses, Carl Lewis, Sergei Bubka, Daley Thompson, Ben Johnson, Allan Wells, Seb Coe, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Sanderson, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, Florence Griffith Joyner, Said Aouita, Calvin Smith, Merlene Ottey, Linford Christie, Roger Kingdom. I just tested myself on how many athletics competitors due to perform in London I can name and their main event and came up with five. Three of them will be running in the 100 metres. I could name more cyclists taking part than track and field which sums it up really.
Rivalries existed everywhere on and off the athletics track in the 80s and the sport was all the more memorable for it. Coe v Ovett, Lewis v Johnson, Fatima v Tessa, East v West (once they both decided to go), Daley Thompson and that German bloke with the almighty tache and mullet, Zola Budd and Mary Decker-Slaney, although that wasn’t a rivalry as such just a great piece of drama forever etched on the memory of anyone who saw it unfold. The Olympics always made for great telly and created an interest outside of the Games itself. There was a time when I only associated the likes of Zurich and Oslo with athletics because the only time you ever heard of them was when an important race meet was taking place, which was usually televised and also usually involved a world record being broke. Do they even have race meets anymore? I’m sure they do but as Ron Pickering isn’t telling me about it I really couldn’t say. And going back to my original point, do today’s athletes hate each other in the same way that Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson did? Not if you listen to Usain Bolt they don’t. He actually said he’d be happy to see his training partner and current 100m world champion Yohan Blake win if he didn’t. I’d never actually heard of Blake until I saw a program about the potential winners of the 100m last week, slightly unbelievable seeing as I could still name all 8 runners in the 1988 100m final. Athletics needs that sense of heightened drama where the viewer knows that the leading competitors want to win for so much more than just the glory; they want to win because they can’t stand the fucker next to them. Without that it’s just an overgrown kid’s sports day without the added pleasure of seeing the three-legged.
If one thing really grates about the modern Olympian experience it has to be the way in which big business have splashed their ugly mugs over everything. We’re reliably informed that without the mega bucks of the corporate fraternity there would be no Olympic Games, which is obviously nonsense. What we wouldn’t have is the million pound stadiums and VIP tents. It’s something you just learn to live with in today’s world, but it can only dilute the enjoyment of the whole experience. The recent Olympic torch procession was a perfect example. You are handed out all sorts of paraphernalia to wave and bang together which are all graffitied with various sponsor logos and then as you wait for the torch to come by a couple of buses in bright colours pass by first, again covered in sponsor logos, where young people dance way too enthusiastically than is necessary and someone implores your local town to “make some noise”. Apparently when you pay millions you’re allowed to do this kind of stuff. It will only get worse during the TV coverage, not that I’m implying it was much different during the 80s, it was then after all that the whole corporate juggernaut started to pick up speed, but it felt somehow less conspicuous than today’s sporting events. Oh sod it, I think I might be moaning now…Let the Games begin…that catchphrase probably comes with a sponsor by someone now as well…