Saturday 22 October 2016

The vast illusion of the five-ring circus in Rio

Published 14/08/2016 | 02:30

Rafaela Silva of Brazil celebrates after defeating Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia in the Women's -57 kg Final - Gold Medal Contest on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Rafaela Silva of Brazil celebrates after defeating Sumiya Dorjsuren of Mongolia in the Women's -57 kg Final - Gold Medal Contest on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Clare Balding likes a story.

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If she can tell you a story, any story at all, she will. Because you clearly don't have the small amount of imagination required to engage with an event in which these insanely-driven people are trying to do something better than it's ever been done before in human history, or just trying to do it better than everyone else on the day, so you need it juiced up with something else.

You need a story.

"Human interest", I think they call it, even when it's not very interesting, and they seem to be looking at the wrong humans.

I wanted them to tell me about the man who somehow got into one of the women's events last week, let's just say it was a race on the water. What's the story there?

When I say he was a man, I mean that as the camera paused to introduce us to the various competitors, the idea formed in my head, "there's a man", in the same way that you'd be walking down the street and a man would be walking towards you and you'd think, "there's a man".

I mean, it couldn't be any clearer. It's not investigative journalism, this, it's just that most of us know more or less what men look like and what women look like, and here was what can best be described as a man.

And hey, if this person was in some phase of transition, working outside of the usual parameters of gender which apply in these situations, well that's a story too. Let's be hearing that one, Clare Balding.

Then they were liking the story of Rafaela Silva, the first Brazilian to win a gold medal at the Games, the judoka from the favela known as the City of God. But there was no more than a passing mention of one Marcia Carvalho Jorge, the equestrian who is also from Brazil, "who is a qualified doctor and who owns a rubber plantation".

He owns a rubber plantation does he? He's a doctor (a "qualified" one, as distinct from the unqualified variety) and he owns a rubber plantation and he's riding this great horse in the Three-Day Event at the Olympics? We want to hear about that guy, we want to hear his story, because if Rafaela Silva belongs to the City of God, it looks like Marcia Carvalho Jorge has already died and gone to heaven.

Shades here too, of the RTÉ analyst who was quoted by Will Hanafin on Twitter pointing out that in order to devote themselves fully to the cause, some of the guys on Ireland's hockey team had "taken sabbaticals from solicitors' firms". A story there, of people prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.

But the best story, the theme which runs through so many events, is the one that not even Clare Balding can tell, at least not without a fully-qualified team from one of the finest solicitors' firms standing beside her, ready to intervene when it starts to get interesting.

This story has long since ceased to be just a matter of athletes "on drugs", it is now this vast experiment in illusion and delusion, this poker game which derives its energy from the fact that the athletes are playing for enormous stakes, and we punters are just throwing in a few pennies.

This is how it works, and they know it, and since we insist on playing this game with them when we could just walk away from it, we might try for a moment to see it from their side - they know that in truth we don't really care about athletics or swimming or weightlifting, and yet we have the gall to be demanding standards of those who do, who have devoted their lives to these disciplines.

They know that this gives us a little buzz of self-righteousness for a few days every few years or so, until we return to the stuff that we actually give a damn about, which is mainly football.

They are obliged to tell us their "stories", describing how they made these massive improvements due to "marginal gains", and advances in sports science in general, and because they just want it more than the other guys. And they are probably astonished that grown-up people are actually believing this stuff, or that they want to believe it, not all of them, but enough of them to sustain the notion that yes, it's all about "marginal gains" and advances in sports science and wanting it more than the other guys.

Then they listen to the unbelievers, who are approaching this with the attitude of a film reviewer who can't understand why they don't make movies any more like the ones with Charlton Heston in them. And they wish that their lives were so uncomplicated.

They know journalists who have gone after certain athletes for doping, and who have mysteriously failed to go after others who seem to fit all the criteria. And then they know they are not alone, in constructing their own personalised programme of self-serving twaddle.

They know it all, and we know it all too, and sometimes the limits of this arrangement are tested - like when we see a man entered in a race for women, and the camera stays on him for a few moments, and then it moves on.

And nobody says a thing.

Sunday Independent

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