It is all too hilariously accurate. We Olympic committee types really do sit around and talk about “legacy”, “sustainability”, “diversity”, “inclusivity” and “multiculturality”, and contained within those woolly abstracts are of course many good things. But when the Games begin this week they won’t be remotely inclusive — not on the track, not where it counts. They will be elitist, ruthlessly and dazzlingly elitist. They won’t be diverse, not really. They will be an endless parade of a fraction of the top one percent of the most physically gifted human beings on earth. If you want the antithesis of the “all-must-have-prizes” culture, this is it. You either win gold, silver or bronze — or else you are an also-ran.
But the important point about the Olympians is not just that they have exceptional bio-mechanical equipment. It’s not just the paddle-shaped hands of the swimmers or the muscle twitch of the sprinters. What makes the sport so compelling is that it is not enough to have a well-made skeleton or musculature. It is all in the heart, or all in the mind. It is a palpable lesson in human achievement and effort. It’s about overcoming pain, and bouncing back from defeat. It’s about endlessly denying yourself some elementary pleasure, like a Mars Bar or a lie-in or a pint of beer, because you hope for some greater long term reward.
Listen to this paper’s wonderful online interviews with great Olympic gold medallists, and how they put in their best performance. You can hear the extraordinary 400-metre hurdler Ed Moses explain his system of measuring 13 paces between each hurdle, and running eight inches from the inside track. Sir Steve Redgrave discusses the exact division of a 2,000-metre race into segments, and the techniques of psychological self-management that are necessary to deal with the lung-bursting agony of the final push. Denise Lewis tells how she threw the javelin in Athens with a broken foot. Seb Coe reveals his trick for beating Steve Cram in Los Angeles (the secret was to stay in front of him all the way round).
As you listen, you realise that these performances were the result not just of physical genius, but also of colossal intellectual and emotional effort — years of self-discipline. The Olympics, in other words, is about character. It’s about the will. Of course, as Baron de Coubertin was at pains to point out, it is not all about winning. But if you want to win, then you need to work. That is the basic message of the Olympics.
Young people in this country are going to see it demonstrated, before their eyes, on the grandest possible stage and in the most vivid and exciting way. Of course you need all sorts of things to have a chance of success. You need opportunity. You need facilities — and it is one of the scandals of our time that both Labour and Tory governments allowed the playing fields to be sold. You need people to take an interest in you and coach you. But you also need to understand that success – in any field – means drive, and the will to win, and the resolve to do things that are dull, repetitive, uncool and very often painful and exhausting.
Yes, of course the Olympics is about legacy, sustainability, diversity, inclusivity, posterity and multiculturality. But it is really about competition between human beings; the glory of winning, the pathos of losing, and the toil that can make the difference. That is the grand moral of the Games, and a very good one, too. It is also the key to economic growth.