Tag Archives: Olympics

Sochi, continued

Well who would have thought Russia would be like the French Riviera? On our first free day we took 
the train west, to Sochi City, and walked down a palm-tree lined boulevard to the harbour to have
lunch in a French themed restaurant - sitting outside! The temperature was 17 C and the sun shone
out of a cloudless blue sky. You would think we’d come for a holiday.
While our warm wooden hut in Banana Street was tucked in the expanding suburbs north of Adler, not
the resort city of Sochi, the mind-blowing venue of the Coastal Olympic park is yet another 15 kilo-metres east. Unfortunately it was only after a gruelling route march from Adler town centre to the
Olympic Village that we discovered all rail transport was free for the duration of the Winter Games!And the specially commissioned trains are smooth, comfortable and very, very frequent. The level of security however would knock spots off any international airport. Everyone is scanned before
entering the station then searched and scanned again before going down to the platform. And if you
make the mistake of leaving the station, because you are a tourist and get easily lost, you have to go through the whole sequence once again. At one check-point (and not even the first of the day)
Lynne had to volunteer (the officer’s polite term) that her tiny glass bottle of Chanel perfume wentinto the bin or we couldn't proceed.  

There is an overwhelming sense, when you first arrive at the Olympic park, that you have stepped
into Future World. The scale is unimaginable. Imagine if you took the O2 arena with five equally
large venues and set them in a circle around a monolithic torch spewing flames then at the periphery place a high-tech, building worthy of Heathrow's Terminal Three, and dot the grand avenues between
with brightly-coloured stages and sponsors pavilions containing state of the art exhibitions and
food courts and you might begin to grasp the enormity of scale. And at night everything becomes animated with light as waves of colour flow over every arena, patterning the surfaces with huge three
dimensional videos.

But it wasn't all rosy. Someone should shoot the person who designed the safety rails in the ice palace. Huge white bars obscured our eyeline. So, in order to see the skating, we had to bob up and down….well that's how we watched….unfortunately some people didn't care that the people sitting behind couldn’t see at all if they stood and leant over the rails. And depending on the event our seats cost between 250 and 350 Euros each!

However the experience of being at Sochi for the Winter Olympics was magical. OK the kids didn't get the marks they strived for, but they skated so beautifully they received a fantastic reception from the Russian skating fans and the on-line distinction of their triple twist being listed 13th of
sports photographs illustrating how elements of winter sports defy the rules of gravity. They’ve
also been voted one of the twenty best-dressed skater teams of all time by Cosmopolitan magazine and listed as one of the ‘hottest’ couples competing in Sochi! 

And what a thing to be, Olympians not once but twice. And that despite having very little funding or support from their association and, at their first event, 12 hours of jet lag. The article in the Guardian newspaper clarified those very facts, and concluded that the fact they managed to get to Sochi was down to their amazing self-discipline and love for the sport. How very true!

It’s not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred with the sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes up short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause and who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worst, is he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

 

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the USA and 1906 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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Gatherings

January is over and done. As a month it’s one I would prefer to skip, yet it holds happy memories of past winter’s fun skiing and sledging on the Caldbeck fells. Except this year there hasn’t been much snow, nor barely any ice to speak of. Neither has it rained much more than usual – in fact the garden thinks its spring and primary shades of primulas are brightening up the borders and snowdrops dip their heads on the lawn. What I need is sunshine and with the days getting gradually longer hope hangs in the air. And that’s what January sums up for me, hope. Winter is passing, nights are getting shorter and all around me nature is sloughing off the old and being gradually re-born.

 

I think it’s in my genes, embedded by past generations; a hunter-gatherer instinct which long ago lost purpose yet survives in essence. Living without electricity and all the mod cons it empowers winter must have been a rum time for the ancestors. Yet archaeologists seem to be finding more and more evidence that the passing of the winter solstice was not merely crucial to Neolithic people but more widely celebrated than mid-summer. Knowing when the old year is ended and a new one about to begin must have been fundamental to surviving. Families (perhaps whole tribes) gathered near important sites like Stonehenge, some travelling hundreds of miles, to join in the annual feast. Imagine coming into the bustle and smells, feeling the heat from fires burning high into the night, the air alive with smoke and cinders, children’s voices strung with excitement, dignitaries parading their rank and authority, priests or shaman (we’ll never know which) preaching power and magic….and there must have been music and singing and the telling of tales.

 

Recent digs at Durrington Walls near Stonehenge have yielded up striking evidence of this ancient festival in the form of thousands of pig bones. The animals were all less than a year old when killed, and (more potently) scientific examination shows they’d been purposely fattened in the months before being slaughtered. They’ve also found pottery remains at the site from as far away as Orkney and Ireland. One archaeologist suggests that over hundreds of years the feast celebrating the winter solstice became a kind of ‘national’ symposium, a coming together of people from all over the British Isles, and even beyond.

 

The writer Alistair Moffat refers to our ancestors as Sea Peoples and I like to think that sums up my identity, someone who loves to wander but who also loves the sanctity of home. Next week I’m beginning a new adventure as I travel to Sochi in Russia. In a way it’s a sort of pilgrimage because I’m going for a purpose but the gathering of people from all over the world is what I believe makes the Winter Olympics extraordinarily special.

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And there will be feasting and music and a telling of tales.

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Twinkle, twinkle, little star…..

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Sometime during the last thirty years there has been a huge seismic shift in the concept of sport. Certainly, growing up in England in the 70’s, the focus of sport was entirely masculine and limited to Saturdays. In general newspaper coverage was merely a couple of pages at the back of the broadsheets and you could tell the season by what was being featured, soccer and rugby in winter, cricket in summer and Wimbledon in June. Journalists writing sports reports for The Times were allowed a maximum of 250 words per event, and that even applied to the 1966 World Cup! There were very few celebrities, and certainly no hype, except on those rare occasions when there was a scandal.

 

Nowadays sport creates icons where once such glitz and glamour were the reserve of royalty or movie stars. Why this need to put sportspeople on a pedestal? Is it their superhuman agility and ambition which inspires those who are less able? Is it because we gain a sense of taking part by celebrating their achievement? Or perhaps there is a need to understand the basis of their talent?

 

The Sport’s writer, Mihir Bose, offers the theory that, “with increasing lack of trust in politicians, men of science and letters, and even church leaders, sports stars have filled the vacuum. Sport has also become a rare source of trusted news in an intensely sceptical world; a sporting result is a fact about which there can be no argument. And sport can also be understood by all, regardless of language or culture or intellect.”

 

Modern sport likes to show it has morality at its core, that it abides by a given set of rules. But this concept of modern sport has its roots in the nineteenth century and was arguably inspired by a work of fiction. Thomas Hughes semi-autobiographical novel about his days at RugbySchool in the early 1800’s – Tom Brown’s Schooldays – was written as a means to ‘preach’ about the virtues and vices of public school education. The tale begins with a game of rugby…..and ends in a game of cricket.

“I’m beginning to understand the game scientifically. What a noble game it is, too!”

“Isn’t it? But it’s more than a game. It’s an institution,” said Tom.

“Yes,” said Arthur – “the birthright of British boys old and young, as habeas corpus and trial by jury are of British men.”

“The discipline and reliance on one another which it teaches is so valuable, I think,” went on the master, “it ought to be such an unselfish game. It merges the individual in the eleven; he doesn’t play that he may win, but that his side may.”

“That’s very true,” said Tom, “and that’s why football and cricket, now one comes to think of it, are such much better games than fives or hare-and-hounds, or any others where the object is to come in first or to win for oneself, and not that one’s side may win.”

“And then the captain of the eleven!” said the master; “what a post is his in our School-world! Almost as hard as the Doctor’s — requiring skill and gentleness and firmness, and I know not what other rare qualities.”

Hughes portrayed the school’s headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, as a selfless man who deemed sports an essential aspect of a ‘gentleman’s education’. The book became extremely influential, selling half a million copies by the end of the century, and it was responsible for Pierre de Coubertin’s ideology for reviving the Olympic Games.

One of the reasons de Coubertin first visited England in 1883 was to study Thomas Arnold’s teaching methods, he passionately believed the system of education Arnold applied at Rugby was responsible for Britain’s industrial and imperial achievements of the 19th century. Thomas Arnold, the leader and classic model of English educators, gave the precise formula for the role of athletics in education. However Pierre de Coubertin’s viewpoint was decided by Tom Brown’s fictional world.

Hughes admired Arnold and wanted his book to illustrate the practical dimensions of ‘muscular Christianity’ in Victorian education. The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. But however convinced he was by the physical benefits of sports de Coubertin was critical of its class distinctions. He wanted all sports for all people. While he did not believe in paying athletes he thought that they should be provided with money if they came from a social background which meant they could not fund themselves. He publicly denounced English rowing contests, arguing that its specific exclusion of working-class athletes was wrong. And Thomas Hughes would most likely have agreed with this attitude because after attending OxfordUniversity (where he played first class cricket) he became a prominent social reformer. One of the important institutions he founded was the Working Men’s College in London and he helped establish some of the earliest trade unions.

Thomas Hughes, Thomas Arnold and Pierre de Coubertin all shared the belief that the kind of ‘back-bone’ cultivated by sports not only developed the physical stamina to defeat an opponent but also formed the moral courage and will-power to fight evil. But for these eminent Victorians there was never any question that sport could be taken up as a career. They would probably find it reprehensible that sport, as opposed to moral duty, has come to dominate the media in the twenty-first century. And earning money from sport, well that would be immoral.

 

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