Artistic discipline and athletic discipline are kissing cousins, they require the same thing, an unspecial practice: tedious and pitch-black invisible, private as guts, but always sacred.
Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies
1. The Winner
To have a winner you must also have a loser. Loss is implicit in the success of a champion. The gold medalist is only standing on the podium because he has beaten his opponents - hordes of them, over the course of his career, hordes of people with exactly the same dream and the same drive. But the hordes become invisible; you see this One Man, this One Woman. You see this kind of greatness as something somehow attainable and natural. It isn't. It’s unlikely, like winning the lottery. We're amazed by Michael Phelps and his 22 medals, and we should be - but here’s what we should be even more amazed by: all the people who finished second, or who never finished at all. All that relative mediocrity, which would be triumph enough for most of us.
When it's particularly, painfully close, you find yourself thinking, why is it this way? why is it so unfair? How can something so minute - 1/100th of a second, two points - be so significant, so decisive?
"The drama of sports - surely lost in a coin toss - comes from pitting two well-matched people against each other and seeing how they fare. But in this case the match has turned out to be *so close* it reminds us how slender the notion of a winner can be - milliseconds, millimeters, tenths of a point awarded from a judge." So writes Rebecca J. Rosen about the "dead heat" between sprinters Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh in the 100 meters at the United States Olympic trials.
That kind of closeness makes it all seem arbitrary: if two contestants are really so equally matched, what's the deciding factor? Not skill, or strength, or speed, but a breath of wind at just the right (or the wrong) moment, an errant cry from the crowd, a superstitious ritual misperformed. So you, the remote spectator, start to earnestly wonder if you could actually affect the outcome of something which appears to be completely out of your control. Is it coincidence that when I change out of the rain-soaked jeans I wore throughout their confidently won first set, Andy Murray and Laura Robson lose the next set, and ultimately the match? In retrospect, surely my mild discomfort was worth enduring in order to ensure a second gold for Murray and a first for Robson.
Logically, of course, there's no way I can own the disappointment of losing, or absorb any of the blame. I certainly can't claim any credit for a win, much as I like to tell people, and only half-jokingly, that it was the way that I tapped the table three times at crucial moments that led the Red Sox to that historic victory in 2004. But the beauty of sport is the uncanny way it includes each and every spectator.
The act of participating in sport is a lonely, personal thing, even where teams are involved. Private battles of will and physical prowess - "private as guts", to borrow Leanne Shapton's phrase - are fought publicly. A race or a game or a gymnastics routine becomes the tangible manifestation of private doubt or private pain being overcome; it’s what’s invisible that counts, and the result is not really of this one contest but of thousands of hours of tedious solitary practice. And yet every contest also expands to become something not just relevant but urgent to the millions of people who have no connection to it at all, really, but who watch anyway, transfixed, transformed for an instant.
Think of it this way: you don't know the athletes, and you likely never will. Unless you've placed a bet, nothing hinges on one pair of rowers being better than another pair of rowers, for you. You're not even there, hearing the oars hit the water; you're here, in your living room, hearing what some sound technician has decided an oar hitting the water should sound like. You’re seeing the event from a hundred different angles - the slow-motion close-up of the tennis ball bouncing in the sun, the water sliding down the shaved arms of the swimmer, the long line of runners stretched like hungry ants down Victoria Embankment - like you're omnipotent. And when it's over you'll feel you've been part of something, even though you haven't, not really: you've just been sitting in your living room, clenching your fists, pausing the live feed to get a glass of water (watching is thirsty work), listening to the comfortable patter of the commentators bantering. And you will get up from your sofa and proceed to the kitchen and wash a few dishes, the humdrum-ness of your life ultimately unchanged by what you’ve just witnessed.
(It’s obvious that by “you” I mean me, here. Maybe you do know the athletes. Maybe you are one. Maybe you were there, maybe you didn’t hear the oars but felt the roar of the crowd instead. And I don’t know if this changes things.)
2. The Viewer
The artificiality of watching sport this way - from a distance - makes it a simultaneously lonely and communal exercise. We’re united in our remoteness from the thing we’re watching. Maybe I'd be writing a very different essay if I had actually been to an Olympic event. As a matter of fact, although I live in a country that’s hosting the Olympics, I'm not at all qualified to tell you what it's like to live in a country that's hosting the Olympics. I haven't been to London in weeks. I'd go, but I can't afford it - or at least this is what I've been telling myself. For a few days I check the relevant website religiously, watching tickets become available. Just a few clicks, a few hours on trains and tubes, a hundred pounds, and I could be at the Aquatics Centre, I think: I could be at the center of things, part of the crowd I’ve been watching and hearing and envying for days. But where would I get a hundred spare pounds? Where would I get those spare hours? And so by the time I’ve mulled it over and decided maybe it is worth it after all, the tickets are long gone, the swimming’s been over for a week, the games are declared closed, and I’ve missed my chance.
So I sit at home, in Oxford, not very far away but also very far away indeed. And I watch things happen on my laptop screen.
"TV tennis has its advantages, but these advantages have disadvantages, and chief among them is a certain illusion of intimacy," writes David Foster Wallace. One morning, I watch a two-minute video about filming the Olympic games. "The aim is to take the viewer where the athlete is", the narrator says. I'm delighted by the way a camera on the end of a rope can follow a diver from the the board all the way into the water, or the way a camera on the bottom of the pool can show the swimmers from an angle you would never naturally see. But it's not that these ingenious contraptions and unique vantage points are placing us where the athlete is - it's that they're placing us simultaneously with and distinctly apart from the athlete. We experience a sense of intimacy and a sense of distance concurrently. Like a childhood memory: you see your four-year-old self from the outside, looking in. You remember the cat lumbering into the room, scratching at your leg, drawing blood, but you relive it as an observer, not a participant, and so you become somehow both.
"TV sporting events are something we make, and they have a tension at their core: On the one hand, we want to feel as if we watched from the stands, but on the other, we want a fidelity and intimacy that is better than any in-person spectating could be. Our desire is for the presentation of real life to actually be better than real life," writes Alexis Madrigal. And of course the oddest thing of all is that this is real life - I mean, me, sitting here, hearing impossible sounds, seeing these human forms in motion from an impossible combination of impossible angles: that's how I experience the Olympics, that's how I experience any televised sporting event.
Mainly, though, I am watching for the spaces in between. My favourite scenes are always those that occur in anticipation of an event or in the relief after. It’s nice to see the athletes in the moments before they compete: headphones on, jacket zipped up, eyes down. It’s nice to see them when it’s over, too. They smile and laugh together and slap each other on the back or hug or cry or look disgusted. You think: well, of course. They're colleagues, compatriots, as much as competitors. I like it, too, when the commentators make mistakes or jokes; when they tease each other, laugh, get confused or excited, are as amazed as I am. These are the best moments because they take you out of the picture completely; you're no longer split, half of you with the athlete, the other half hovering over the stadium in a hot air balloon. You’re you again, they’re them; this is the realest moment, no matter where you are, the coming back down to earth moment.
3. The Body
Often the competition hardly matters at all. It's compelling enough just to watch limbs move. We watch a lot of longer events: the men’s 10,000m, the women’s marathon, the men’s 1500m freestyle, the women’s marathon 10km, the men’s individual time trial. I think, at the start of each: I cannot possibly watch this race in full. But by the end I'm riveted; I haven't moved in ten minutes, twenty minutes, two hours.
The feet of the runners look like the spindly limbs of gazelles fleeing from a predator. I admire the apparently languid stroke of the swimmer who beats his own world record by more than three seconds; the gentle two-beat kick, the arm sliding through the water. The shots from below show these swimmers suspended, impossibly light and graceful, even after nearly a mile. The open-water swimmers sway and splash, glancing up occasionally to orient themselves; someone on Twitter says it doesn't make for very good television, does it, but I disagree entirely, and I'm too absorbed to disagree publicly. The marathon runners, even two hours into their race, have perfectly composed faces. Only at the very end - the last push, the final few metres - does Tiki Gelana grit her teeth, belying the effort it's taken to carry herself to the finish line. They all collapse as soon as they cross the line, but soon get back up again. Gelana jogs past the crowd, wrapped in the Ethiopian flag, like Bradley Wiggins gets back on his bike and cycles blithely back the way he came, in search of his family, looking like he might happily retrace his steps all the way back to the start of the race if he needs to and ride it again.
[N.B. These moments - the final moments of a long-distance race - are particularly astonishing. Something about the sheer distance involved, the investment of time, makes the conclusion more immediately poignant. For almost two hours I watch a group of women swim the Serpentine and yet when the end comes it's too quick and too soon. It's agony to watch them in the last stretch, British medal hopeful Keri-Anne Payne not quite able after all those kilometers to push herself into third place. The gap between her (1:57:42.2) and the bronze medalist (1:57:41.8) is nothing in the context of a 10km swim, but it’s also everything. The marathon is the same: hope is prolonged, dragged out, making the finish more bitter than sweet. For most of the race there's the sense that anyone could win it, or nearly anyone, at least, even though you know that’s not how these things work, even though you know the chances of anyone but the winner winning have been steadily diminishing since the starting pistol presaged the end. And then, suddenly, it's the same old story: just one winner. A dozen, two dozen people behind her who have all pushed themselves to exhaustion, and for what? A race that's over in 10 seconds is a shocking culmination to years of grueling training, but at least that’s only 10 seconds of waiting, only 10 seconds of footage to scour in the aftermath, searching for clues as to why it was someone else this time.]
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body.
Nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. This is true, isn't it? It's all about the amazement of seeing a body - the thing we all share, though we don’t all resemble each other, though we can’t all do the same things with the bodies we have. True there are plenty of sports that require animals or apparatus, but at the centre, still, is the human form. The dressage horse is magnificent, but so, supposedly, is the rider’s control.
The footnote to Wallace’s claim above, by the way, is this:
There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It's your body that dies, after all.
There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.
I think of that giddy point in a run when you think, I could keep going indefinitely! And then, a few minutes later, maybe, you're thinking, I can't breathe, I can't lift my legs, I can't keep going even one second longer. But you keep going anyway, because you know deep down that this is not Pushing Yourself at all, that you haven't even approached the gentle foothills of Pushing Yourself; you’re still on the plains of Taking It Easy. You've run four miles, which is nothing, and done it pretty slowly, and you’ll walk for a few minutes when you want, stretch a tight hamstring, skip through the songs on your iPod, searching for just the right thing.
I remember going to a track meet in high school and running the 800 meters, which was my preferred distance (for reasons unknown, since I wasn’t particularly good at it, and it was a pretty grueling race - you always had to run too fast for too long). I never won anything - in fact I quit the team halfway through the season - but I always had a strong finish. I always had plenty of energy to sprint the last 25 meters while the girls at the lead of the pack were crossing the finish line and collapsing. And I remember the coach suggesting, at this particular meet, that I should have run hard enough that I found it difficult to accelerate at the finish. That if I found it easy, I hadn’t done enough. Okay, I said, pretending to pay attention. But I never changed my tactics: wait until the end is in sight, I thought, then put the pressure on, not the other way round. I was too scared to find out what it might be like to reach that final stretch and discover that I had no reserves, nothing left, couldn’t go faster. I was curious, but not curious enough to actually discover the exact point at which a task becomes actually impossible.
So to watch others do this now, to see them testing the limits, pushing the limits, playing with the very idea of limits, both satisfies and provokes that curiosity.
4. The National Anthem
If it's about being human, about the universal human experience of being in a body, it shouldn't matter where the winner is from. But obviously it does, to some extent. We keep track of which countries win the most medals. We raise flags and blare national anthems. We want the country hosting the games to perform as admirably as possible. “Urged on by massive home crowds and a cheerleading press that defied predictions of Olympic cynicism, British athletes ran, cycled and rowed their way to their highest medal count since Britannia ruled the seas in 1908. At these Games, the United States and China might be coming home with more gold, but this country of 62 million roughly the size of Michigan reminded itself of its uncanny ability to punch above its weight,” writes Anthony Faiola.
But I don't think of the champions as representing their countries so much as representing themselves, though their countries may well be part of themselves. Still, it all culminates in this moment of - what? Not national pride, exactly - this moment of acknowledging one's roots, I suppose, of acknowledging one's home (or adopted home, as the case may be). This is where I came from, this is the place in which I became the magnificent creature you see before you.
“You can follow the Olympics two ways,” writes Ian Johnson:
First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. [...]
Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy. Individuals matter, to a degree, but more as products of systems than as distinctive personalities. I admire Ye Shiwen’s performance but wonder more about why the country’s swimming coaches get paid almost as much as the central government spends on preserving the country’s dying folk culture. I think Phelps is a great physical specimen but wonder why Americans are getting fatter and fatter.
It’s irrelevant at times - there's the camaraderie amongst athletes from different countries who train together, or the fact that it’s impressive to watch a young woman at her first Olympics blast past all the old favourites to take gold no matter where she's from (what, for instance, does Johnson make of 15-year-old Lithuanian gold medalist Rūta Meilutytė, who trains in Plymouth?). But place still matters. Not just history, heritage, citizenship: setting, too. Here’s Jonathan Meades, writing in 2008:
The entirely despicable, entirely pointless 2012 Olympics - a festival of energy squandering architectural bling worthy of a vain third world dictatorship, a jobbery gravy train, a payday for the construction industry, a covetable terrorist target - will occupy a site far more valuable as it was. It was probably the most extensive terrain vague of any European capital city: the English word wasteland is pejorative and lazy. Further it more or less states that the place has no merit - so why not cover it in expressions of vanity.
I don’t think the 2012 Olympics are entirely despicable or entirely pointless - that much is obvious. But when I watch the games I know that I also willfully ignore political and economic implications. I pretend that I can’t understand because I’m not from here (if ever there was a lazy excuse, that’s one!). To watch the Olympics on a screen is one thing; to visit or acknowledge its (albeit temporary) place on the map, its corporeal form, if you will, is more complicated. I think of the Olympics as an idea, not an actual destination. And perhaps I have deliberately resisted the urge to visit the site. I claim a scarcity of time or money prevented me from going to London, but maybe it’s just that this way of watching - my way of watching - only works if “the Olympics” remains a sufficiently abstract concept.
(I watch the faces of the American athletes as "The Star Spangled Banner" plays; sometimes I can see their lips moving. Do they really know the lyrics, I wonder, or are they, as we have all sometimes had to do, just pretending?)
5. Look Away
And why am I so compelled? Why can't I look away - or, rather, why don't I want to, even for a second? Why do I feel bound to watch two and a half hours of swimming heats - not even semi-finals, let alone finals - accompanied by the soothing voices of Andy Jameson and Adrian Moorhouse, who I've come to think of as dear friends? Is it admiration, envy, desire? The spectacle of skin and muscle, the parade of flesh? Yes, probably. And it’s also for the narrative: how will I know who to root for if I don't see the whole context, if I’m not wholly immersed? Why would I skip over parts of a story I’m so thoroughly enjoying?
There's something compelling, too, about my own reactions. I'm surprised to hear my voice as Victoria Azarenka hits a ball into the net and I pump my fist and shout "yesss!" - to cheer for the negative, to celebrate the opponent's mistake, feels like it’s verging on being unsportsmanlike, and moreover it seems to have been involuntary. Where did this visceral enthusiasm come from? And where does it go, where does it hide, during the daytime, during all the ordinary hours?
And then there's the tragedy of sport. Simultaneous with the realisation of winning is the acknowledgment of an ending/a new beginning. You must either do it again or give it up, burn out or fade out. The achievement must be matched - if not by you then by someone else, someone younger, faster, better. The likelihood of a repeat performance, let alone one four years later, is difficult to gauge - who will you be then? How can you guarantee that the circumstances, the wind, will be right?
So these people - these champions, these almost-champions - repeatedly enact a kind of Greek tragedy. The exposure of this drama is like peeling skin back, revealing a roadmap of veins and sinew. It’s almost indecent, but we're hungry for it. Show us what they feel so we can feel something too. Let us think that tears of joy are also tears, even if unconsciously, of mourning or of fear. When the games close, when the flame is extinguished, we arrive at the moment of understanding: the moment of knowing how small this is, even while it looms so large, how fleeting, how insignificant.
The question is this: is watching sport an exercise in great empathy or great selfishness? Am I watching and thinking, good for her, I enjoy this success vicariously, this is a just payoff for the sacrifices she’s made throughout her life? Or am I watching and thinking, if only it was me, but it will never be me, it can never be me? Here is a celebration of a human experience that very few will share, and yet I know as I watch her reaction that it's my reaction, too, it's everybody's reaction. It's a physical reaction, though we're not sharing the same physical space, though she has just enthusiastically finished an 800m race while I've just enthusiastically finished a glass of wine. My shoulders shake too; my voice cracks too; I’m a mirror, a mimic.