Books: Visions Before Midnight — Onward to Montreal |
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Onward to Montreal

The gymnastics and the swimming having finally been got out of the road, the Olympics (BBC1 recurring) settled down to the task of boring you rigid with the track and field events.

For the Beeb’s harassed commentators it was hard to know how to follow that climactic moment at the swimming pool when David Wilkie won a gold medal and Alan Weeks had an orgasm. So loud was the shouting from the commentary box that it was sometimes difficult to sort who was screaming what. Hamilton Bland, Alan’s new technical assistant, is not very quiet even when he is talking normally. ‘But tonight the Union Jack is raised and is being waved very proudly indeed!’ ‘A proud Scot!’ ‘And so the big moment has arrived!’ ‘The Flying Scotsman!’ ‘We have a certain gold medallist!’ All these were among the things yelled, but the loudest bellow of all was unmistakeably Alan’s: ‘David Wilkie is absolutely superb!’ And so he was. It was a proud moment for England. Well, Britain. All right, Scotland. What? Oh yes, and the University of Miami.

But when the focus shifted to track and field our patriots found themselves starved of material. Ron Pickering tried to ward off the encroaching void by co-opting new words, of which his favourite was ‘absolutely’, as in: ‘We’re absolutely short of medals.’ And we absolutely were. Nor did the Canadian television people seem to care very much about our plight. Ron was clearly distressed when we weren’t even allowed to see Geoff Capes being red-flagged on his last put, the director having cut away to watch a Russian girl getting nowhere in the javelin. And in the 10,000 metres Brendan Foster (‘We had such high hopes of Brendan Foster’) barely got into shot during the final stages, leaving Ron to speculate that he might be ‘thinking of that plane-load of supporters from Gateshead’.

What Frank Bough constantly referred to as ‘Britain’s medal-tally’ depended absolutely on whether our athletes lived up to our high hopes when it came to the big one. Although the big one is more David Vine’s term than Ron’s, nevertheless Ron is apt to help himself to it in the heat of the moment, as he did in the women’s javelin, where one of the competitors was commended for having managed to ‘pull out the big one’. A variation was the longer one, as in ‘He’s got a longer one out.’ And one of the pole-vaulters called forth a burst of eroticism verging on the lyrical. ‘Just before he slots it in you’ll see him whip it up around his ears ... keeping his left arm absolutely firm ... carrying it parallel to the ground...’

Even before the Olympics started, David Coleman was already grappling with the problem of how to describe East Germany’s Renata Stecher. ‘The big girl, Renata Stecher’ and ‘East Germany’s powerful Renata Stecher’ were two of the devices he resorted to then. By the time of the Games proper, he was obsessed. ‘Stecher really very squarely built.’ ‘Really square. Very, very strong.’ ‘The bulky figure of Renata Stecher.’ With regard to Renata, the age of chivalry is dead. The erstwhile attempts to establish that she is really quite feminine off the field have been given up, and nobody now pretends that she wouldn’t roll straight over you like a truck.

As in the Winter Olympics, there was heavy use of this, the man and the man who, with perms and combs of all three. Thus we heard about ‘The man they said couldn’t win the big one’, ‘This the girl we’ve seen before’, ‘This the technique to follow’, ‘This the race’, ‘The man who’s writing a thesis on the psychological effects of world-class sprinting’ and ‘This the man who didn’t want to compete in this’. As a recompense, ‘situation’ was largely eschewed, except when Ron said that a race was ‘getting pretty close to the middle situation’, meaning that it was almost half over.

But if ‘situation’ was on its way out, ‘a lot to do’ was plainly on its way in. ‘Jenkins has a lot to do’ was a new way of saying that our man, of whom we had such high hopes, was not going to pull out the big one. A variation was ‘an awful lot to do’, as in ‘and Ovett’s got an awful lot to do!’ meaning that our man was about to finish an awful long way behind the man who didn’t want to compete in this.

Another term in vogue was ‘Olympic history’, which differs from ordinary history in being rewritten from minute to minute, so that ‘the fastest man in Olympic history’ can become ‘the second fastest man in Olympic history’ in just the time it takes someone to pull a longer one out. But all these new locutions paled into insignificance beside the sudden importance of ‘hamstring’ and ‘Achilles tendon’.

With the possible exception of the Queen, everybody at the Olympic Games pulled a hamstring or an Achilles tendon. Sonia Lannaman, of whom we had such high hopes, pulled a hamstring and was unable to compete in her two sprint events. Alan Pascoe failed to recover fully from his pulled hamstring. Maria Neufville fell in her event, having had ‘a lot of trouble ... with Achilles tendons.’ Lucinda Prior-Palmer’s horse went lame after a clear round. One Spanish horse went lame from merely looking at the first fence. The logical conclusion was that everybody concerned — man, woman or beast — was trying to do more than nature permits.

To agonise about our medal-tally is absurd. If our medal-tally were larger, there would be real reason for worry, since it would mean that Britain was more concerned with sporting prestige than any free nation of its size ought to be. In the Olympic Games it is neither important to win nor important to have taken part. Sport is just something people who feel like doing it do, up to the point where the effort involved becomes inhuman. Beyond that point, politics takes over. Politically, the Olympic Games are a farce on every level. It is grotesque that in 1976 the BBC commentators should still be sounding like the old Pathé Pictorials, desperately cherishing an illusion of British influence which would be fatuous even if it were real.

1 August, 1976

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]