Thursday 29 September 2016

Vincent Hogan: Chasing the beauty in Track and Field? You don't know what you're looking at

Published 22/08/2016 | 02:30

Almaz Ayana (ETH) of Ethiopia poses with her bronze medal.
Almaz Ayana (ETH) of Ethiopia poses with her bronze medal.
Almaz Ayana (ETH) of Ethiopia poses next to a display with her timing after setting a new world record. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Andrew Jennings became the reading of choice here as the lights began to flicker on South America's first Olympics.

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It's 16 years since publication of his excoriating The Great Olympic Swindle, a book that laid bare the grot beneath IOC fingernails and the shameless, self-aggrandising culture of its principals. Jennings wrote about general hucksterism and the habitual displacement of impoverished locals to make way for a Big Top destined, inevitably, to bankrupt their city.

And he majored in a deeply embedded history of Olympic corruption.

One of his favourite subjects was Anwar Chowdhry, someone described in the book as "a perfidious, cunning old crook". Chowdhry controlled amateur boxing through a period recalled largely for its skulduggery, and you could all but sense his ghost in Rio's Olympic boxing hall last week as the AIBA effectively sacked its executive director and stood down its seven highest-ranked judges.

Naturally, Roy Jones Jnr's name was invoked as the ultimate emblem of Olympic crookery at ringside. The story goes that maybe 20 fights were fixed in Seoul, but the Jones fiasco took things to the front pages. It provoked the headline 'Vomit' in l'Equipe.

There were whispers then that boxing might be thrown out of the Olympics, but those familiar with Chowdhry didn't rush that story to print. They said he had "all the dirt" he needed on that wicked old fascist, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Almaz Ayana celebrates winning the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games, she later claimed bronze in the 5,000 metres. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.
Almaz Ayana celebrates winning the 10,000 metres at the Olympic Games, she later claimed bronze in the 5,000 metres. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

So it took eight years and the publication of another Jennings book, The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals, for the IOC to eventually announce an investigation into the Jones fight. Their conclusion? "No evidence of corruption in boxing!"

Jones, by now a pro and widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound pugilist on the planet, did, in time, get a call from the five-ringed circus. They announced that they were bestowing upon him a 'Silver Olympic Order'.

Superior scrappers like Chowdhry himself and that Romanian charmer, Nicolae Ceausescu, qualified for the gold one.

Maybe the Olympic experience ultimately becomes whatever you choose to make of it yourself. And Neymar sure found a connection with his people here on Saturday night that these Games needed a Brazilian to make. For the rest of us?

Well, heaven alone knows what horrors lurk down in the silted depths of Guanabara Bay but, to Annalise Murphy, Rio's filthy waters could have been plumbed from the world's most opulent spa. All of those visits to Rio, familiarising herself with geography, tides and the dangers of a collision in the bay with a discarded sofa, TV set or worse, paid off for Annalise.

Those experiences seemed to steel the Rathfarnham girl towards disregard for all outside energies, stiffening her will to exorcise that most public of heartbreaks suffered on England's south coast four years earlier.

Frivolities

Annalise did not come here for the sun. In fact, it is doubtful any Irish athlete has ever collected Olympic accreditation with less interest in the frivolities it might access. She did not stay in the athletes' village, billeting herself instead in an apartment close to the marina. For her, Rio will always be a poem.

The O'Donovans never stopped grinning, never suspended the sense that it's reasonable to go through life beguiled by the flimsiest of dreams. All that pain they met, slipping endlessly down into the brown water off a West Cork jetty, must have felt knuckle-headed at times when winter mornings were at their blackest.

But the their way was to make light of physical discomfort. To laugh through sacrifice. Out under those out-stretched arms on Corcovado, they were endlessly gabby and giddy and wired for juvenile mischief. If it came to it, they'd have chased that dream in a high-pitching sea.

And Thomas Barr? He splashed precious light here when he would have been forgiven for resorting to the persona of a lampshade. Fourth in an Olympic final can colour a young life. The sport he competes in is one of largely closed expressions and mannequins communicating in whispers, yet, just after noon on Thursday, Barr came rolling through the basement of the Olympic stadium with a smile you could sell toothpaste to.

Better than that, when asked about the asterisk put beneath everything here, he didn't summon that hurt-and-offended look of someone who's just been asked to explain those dvd players in the boot of their car. Barr spoke at length about the curse of drugs in his sport like a man with nothing to hide.

But chasing the beauty in Track and Field is like following the timid beam of a miner's helmet underground. You don't know what you're looking at. Honestly, it feels as if everything is shaded and best only to process with abundant care.

I mean, I watched Wayde van Niekerk break Michael Johnson's 17-year-old 400m record, an absolute watershed moment, yet could not see a sliver of emotion. Why? The scene felt utterly bizarre. He met the blizzard of flashbulbs with all the spontaneity of a young soldier just having square-bashed his way around a barracks yard.

I watched Alamaz Ayana, slim as a wand, obliterate a women's 10,000, world record that had always felt like a fraudulent insert in the history books. It was put there by Wang Junxia, one of Ma Juhren's cold-eyed automatons who ran, we can now legitimately say, in a world of make-believe.

Sonia O'Sullivan noted that the Ethiopian was barely breathing after her history run. She might as well have been spirited around upon some invisible cable.

Then on Friday night, midway through the 5,000m final, Ayana was passed by two Kenyans as if stuck to the spot like a statue fastened to a plinth. It was like seeing a couple of sprinters blunder into a marathon. One of the Kenyans, Vivian Cheruiyot, won gold, while Ayana's bronze was still claimed in a time better than that with which Gabriela Szabo out-ran Sonia to win gold in Sydney.

You see humans at this gig with the kind of jet propulsion that knocks over bathers when there's a Boeing readying for take-off on Maho Beach. You see muscles that could be rocks beneath the skin; eyes that always seem shuttered. You see Russians stand sheepishly on podiums. You see empty seats. You don't, of course, see whistleblowers.

Cheating

We follow the great show under flags of nations guilty of war crimes, human rights violations and - frankly the least of it - state-sponsored cheating. Yet, still we come. Still we step around those who've been bulldozed aside for the creation of architecture that will forever look at odds with the surrounding landscape of struggle.

Still we ignore the history of host cities pushed into a black hole by the bills about to follow. The World Cup cost tax-payers here a record $9bn, and Brazil's credit-rating was downgraded to junk-status in December. The country is in its worst recession since the 1930s, yet still the fireworks boomed above the favelas last night.

And still Thomas Bach, a man of terminal dullness, held the world's gaze with the practised air of a celebrated humanitarian.

Pat Hickey's arrest was a showpiece moment for the Rio police here. It was the equivalent of a punch thrown on behalf of the Brazilian people. Almost their way of articulating to the IOC, you did not fool us, nobody fooled us.

You got away with it.

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