Tuesday 21 May 2019

Olympics retain ability to enthrall

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Shun Fujimoto was in a spot at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. He'd broken his knee during the floor exercises but if he withdrew Japan's chance of a team gymnastics gold medal would probably disappear. The pommel horse wasn't ideal but he managed to complete it with a 9.5 score.

The rings, on the other hand, were going to be a bit trickier. Because when he finished his routine on this most gruelling piece of apparatus, which was going to be difficult enough in itself, he would have to leap eight feet on to the floor. And, broken knee notwithstanding, he would have to keep his balance on landing or be penalised sufficient points to deny Japan the gold.

Fujimoto did his routine. Then he jumped, executing a triple somersault on the way down. As he hit the floor he dislocated his broken kneecap and tore ligaments in his right leg. But he kept his balance long enough to raise his arms and finish the routine properly. Then he staggered away in agony and fell into the arms of his coach Yakuji Hayata.

The 9.7 marks Fujimoto received were his highest ever score on the rings. More importantly, they helped Japan defeat the USSR by the smallest margin in Olympic history, 576.85 to 576.45.

His story was told on Faster, Higher, Stronger, an extraordinarily good BBC2 series about the Olympics shown on four consecutive nights last week which, in addition to gymnastics, also featured episodes on swimming and the men's 100m and 1,500m in athletics. The only disappointing thing about it is that the BBC are giving us just four episodes when the quality of the programmes made you wish they'd pushed the boat out and went for a dozen. Or more.

That gymnastics programme also featured the legendary Czech Vera Cavlavska, who won four golds at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, defeating the mighty Soviets soon after the Russian invasion of her home country which had crushed the movement towards democracy known as The Prague Spring. The story of Cavlavska, forced to train in the woods rather than a gym because of the invasion and subsequently victimised by the Communist dictatorship because of her silent protest during the playing of the Russian anthem, was every bit as remarkable as that of Fujimoto.

And the elfin grace of Olga Korbut, the sheer perfection of Nadia Comaneci and the athleticism and power of Fujimoto's team-mate, twice all-round individual champion Sawao Kato, were something to behold too.

What this wonderful series showed above all is that while it's easy to be cheaply cynical about the games and bang on about drug use, jingoism and commercialism, it's your loss if you do. What the Olympics are really about is extraordinary people doing extraordinary things at the very limits of human possibility.

London 2012 will be no different.

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