Wednesday 13 November 2019

David Quinn: Spirit of the Olympics is out of football's league

David Quinn

Premier League football kicks off again in England tomorrow. I follow English football. I follow Newcastle but I'm not particularly looking forward to this season and I don't think I'm alone.

The nine months of the season also means nine months of some truly obnoxious players dominating the headlines for their antics both on and off the field.

It means nine months of fans hurling truly vile abuse at each other, at the opposition players, and at their own players when the mood takes them. On a really bad day, we'll get violence.

Then there is the relentless hype, especially on Sky. Every football match is of epic importance, apparently not to be missed. The fate of the world can hang on a single goal.

Managers are routinely sacked for not living up to the ludicrous expectations, fed by the hype -- of club owners and fans.

In the close season, when no football is being played, there is still no avoiding it because then the sports pages become dominated by transfer sagas, as players compete for the title of 'greediest and most disloyal of them all'.

We were half spared it this time around because of the Olympics.

Speaking of the Olympics, could the contrast between it and Premier League football be any greater? Whereas there is mainly bad will on display at many a premier-league match, there was only good will on display at London 2012.

Even Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard was driven to remark on the difference.

On Wednesday, the 'Daily Telegraph' reported: "It was when Frank Lampard witnessed Usain Bolt winning the Olympic 200m gold medal in front of universal acclaim, respect and adulation last week that the English midfielder experienced at first hand the shifting sands under football's feet."

In contrast to the atmosphere in the Olympic stadium, Sunday's Community Shield match between Manchester City and Chelsea was "played out in a pantomime atmosphere of boos, abuse and yellow and red cards".

Explaining the difference, Lampard said: "Football is about winning. I teach my kids to want to win, but you have to respect the fact that you can't win all the time. Football is played at this real level now of importance. It's tribal. That creates a different thing to what the Olympics create."

But the Olympics are also about winning. Usain Bolt wanted to win his three gold medals. Badly. Katie Taylor wanted to win her boxing gold medal. Badly.

However, the Olympics aren't only about winning. Obviously, they are also about taking part but as importantly, they are about watching and admiring the best in the world doing the best they can without rancour from anyone.

It's a mistake, of course, to over-romanticise the Olympics. There have been, and are, plenty of drug cheats for whom winning really is everything. And a lot of national pride is at stake.

Back in the day, a huge amount of both national pride and Cold War politics was mixed up in whether the USA, the USSR, or even the former East Germany would top the medals table.

And if the Olympics were taking place in front of us week in, week out, and huge amounts of money was on the line, I wonder how long would have to pass before the whole thing became as ugly as football can be?

The point is that when sport is overwhelmingly about winning or about money or about getting one over on the other side because you hate their guts (friendly rivalry is a different kettle of fish entirely), it subverts its own purpose.

You know sport has subverted itself when it is mostly a business.

You know it's happening when a football manager at a girls' U16 soccer match in Tralee between two teams no one has ever heard of is knocked unconscious in a bust-up and has to be taken away in an ambulance.

You know it's happening when you think sport has nothing to do with building character and therefore you think it's acceptable for coaches to tell their teams that winning is much more important than how you win. So go ahead and spear-tackle your opponent into the ground.

You know it's happening when leading sportspeople couldn't give a damn about what sort of example they're setting, either on-field or off-field, to their supporters, including children.

The Olympics itself has gone a fair way down the path of subverting its own true end as sport for the sake of sport. During London 2012 we pretty much glossed over the fact that quite a few of the athletes are proven cheats.

The upside of this is that it allowed us to recapture some of the true spirit of the Olympics.

But football has gone much further down the path of subverting itself by putting money and winning at all costs first.

If it continues down that path, eventually it's going to lose a lot of its audience. That's why football would be well advised to capture some of that Olympian spirit for itself.

Irish Independent

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