I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I’m not good at sports. I was never first choice of player for the school netball team or hockey team; I had no real aptitude for anything. I joined an athletics club in my early teens and got a great deal better (about the 6th or 7th fastest female long distance runner in my school at one stage, but never county competition-worthy). There was no career in sports awaiting me. But I do enjoy watching sports – some sports, anyway. I like to watch England play football (well, when I say like, I mean endure). Men’s English football is in a bit of a bad way. Too many overpaid players who just don’t ‘want it’ enough. I suppose you don’t when you get paid too much. I like to watch England play rugby (on our day, we can beat anyone, so it’s a safer bet than football). But what I enjoy most is watching tennis – tennis on grass, you understand. To be specific, I mean Wimbledon. I’ve loved to watch Wimbledon every summer since I was a little girl. I like it even more now we have a British player who can beat anybody if he’s on form (I’m talking about Andy Murray, obvs). I’ll watch any grand slam tournament, but really – if it isn’t at Wimbledon, then I can take or leave it. Actually, there is one thing I enjoy more than Wimbledon – and that’s The Olympics.
Once every four years, that special two-week period in summer comes around. All the titans of every sport you can think of come together in one place and vie for a spot on that podium (and that piece of metal of three varying colours to hang around their necks).And if they win? They’re officially the best in the world. I love to watch those sports that they don’t put on TV with any regularity; diving, cycling, swimming, gymnastics, athletics. I also love to see women excelling in sport; think about it, they don’t show a lot of sportswomen on regular TV. I’m the sort of person who’d book two weeks of annual leave just so I can stay home and watch The Olympics. I never have, I don’t have enough annual leave, but I’m the sort of person who would. Just like you, I’ve grown up watching The Olympics. But when I was a kid, Great Britain just didn’t perform. Apart from the odd gold here and there in athletics from Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Daley Thompson, we didn’t do terribly well; a little country like ours with very little sports funding. We weren’t expected to. In 1996 in Atlanta, we finished 36th in the medals table. It was depressing. Why aren’t we any bloody good at anything? But all that changed with the introduction of lottery funding. Money was pumped into our sports; athletes now had the opportunity to train the way ‘the big boys’ trained (America, Russia and China). And by the time London hosted the Olympics in 2012 (which was the best Olympics Games of all time, if you ask me [which you didn’t]), we were a force to be reckoned with. I say ‘we’ very liberally and very loosely in this post. Bear in mind, I do realise I’ve had very little to do with Great Britain’s success (or have I…?).
At the time of writing this blog, Team GB are second place in the medal table. I know, second place. That’s us; just behind USA (a country of 324 million people), one place in front of China (a country of 1.3 billion people). Us. Little, and yet still Great, Britain; a country with a population of 65 million people, in second place in the medal table of The Olympic Games. We came third in the London Olympics, and with home advantage (although still astounding), we were expected to do well. But this is a games in a foreign country. The achievement is astonishing. It’s something that every one of us Brits ought to be proud of. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this. How has our nation achieved this? I’ve read a few articles about sports funding in this country. Apparently the thinking is pretty brutal. If funded sports are seen not to perform well in medal placements, funding is slashed within that sport and reallocated to sports where proven performances are better. It seems very harsh, I know. But it works. So I don’t care.
When the news came out that London had been chosen to host the 2012 games, you wouldn’t believe the amount of moaning and bitching there was in the UK. People complained that it was a waste of money when that monumental amount of cash could arguably be used for more important projects; like the health service, transport, education, defence. But I, and others like me, disagreed with that way of thinking. There is something about sport that can bring people together, there is something about sport (and great achievement in sport) that is invaluable for national pride. And it doesn’t do tourism any harm either. Once the 2012 games were over, those naysayers stopped moaning and bitching. Moral in the UK was at an all-time high. For once (and we are renowned as being a rather negative, self-effacing sort of people), we were actually proud to be British. We don’t go around thumping our chests shouting ‘UK! UK!’ at regular intervals. We aren’t, historically, a terribly proud nation. I always envied Americans and other nationalities for that; having no qualms in wearing their national pride on their sleeves. And after the 2012 games, just for once – we were like that. Proud to be us. The feeling in the UK was a very good one.
So I guess that’s why I’m so proud and honoured to watch our athletes compete and perform so well in Rio. We’ve had a tough year in the UK this year. The EU referendum and the prospect of leaving the European Union has divided us as a nation; turning countryman against countryman, Facebook friend against Facebok friend. But Rio has gone some way to ease that tension and division. We have come together again as a people to support our athletes; our amazing sportsmen and women from all walks of life, this ethnic melting-pot of a nation – all British, all superheroes. We, the British people, really needed this right now. That is why The Olympics is so important. That is why sport is so important (even if I’m not especially good at it). Oh, and I may have done no more than sit on my fat arse on my sofa screaming at the TV to cheer our amazing men and women on (I and all my other sporting armchair-pundit friends on my non-author Facebook feed; Julie M, Tony, Julie A, Mike, Sam, Lara, Becky, Kirsty – and the rest of you. You know who you are). But maybe, just maybe, our athletes heard our cheers and screams. We willed you on. We were with you all the way; in the back of your boat, on your shoulder as you ran or cycled or swam or vaulted. We fretted and we tore our hair out and we jumped up and down. Maybe you heard us.
There’s no hope of catching the Americans (I’m not mental enough to believe that’s possible), but second in the medal table, competing against all the bigger and stronger nations of the world? There’s no shame in that. So to all the athletes, the coaches, the husbands and wives and children who missed out on that time with their olympian family member, the people in charge of the money; thanks for that. I’m not being corny or schmaltzy, I had those genes surgically removed at birth. But without any hint of my usual British scepticism or eye-rolling or sarcasm, thanks for helping to heal Britain’s wounds. This isn’t jingoism either; I’m just feeling proud – for a change. Like I say, we needed this.
PS: This post was written and published before the end of The Olympics and before the final medal count was in. I don’t know yet if we remained in second or slipped down a place. But I remain incredibly proud. Well done Team GB.
PPS: Apologies to my husband and children for the back-to-back Olympic coverage you’ve been forced to watch on the TV for the last two weeks (apart from the time my husband turned over to watch ‘iZombie’ – we won a gold in the diving and I missed it. I’ll never forgive him). I may have practically ignored you, but it was worth it.