/ 10 August 2012

Salute the crying Olympic Games

The range of emotions at the Olympics.
The range of emotions at the Olympics.

Perhaps it is the emotional flabbiness of middle age, perhaps a descent into fully fledged sentimentality, but I cannot remember having been moved by an Olympics in the way I have been moved by some events in London these past two weeks. Colombian weightlifters, Korean fencers – emotion has arrived unbidden from the strangest places.

The pain and joy of the participants have put me in mind of the founding principles, the base elements, of why the Olympics were practised in the first place – a form of time travel, I suppose. They were practised, or so we are told, to witness the extremes of human suffering, joy and pain and to do so on stage before the world's eager and prying eyes.

You might have seen last week's fencing match in which a slight miscalculation between the referee and the timekeeper led to an impasse in the women's épée semifinal match between South Korea's Shin A-Lam and Germany's Britta Heidemann. The South Korean and her coach claimed the decisive point was invalid because it was awarded after the match had ended. Heidemann, who won the match 6-5 to progress to the final, naturally thought otherwise.

There were heated discussions with coaches and officials, gesticulation and unhappiness. The fencers were quite literally stranded where they stood, unable to go forward and unable to turn back. It was a physical impasse but looked almost philosophical – a moment of pure theatre of which Samuel Beckett would have been proud.

The television commentators were of so little help that I turned down the sound and watched the two protagonists wait. This was no ordinary waiting game. A place in the final was on offer. Even small gestures – the hand on a hip signifying Teutonic annoyance – take on a significance they would not normally have.

Fists pumped
Eventually the match was awarded to the German, who bounced around with fists pumped and general machismo, the only time her composure wavered and her mask dropped. Shin simply stood where she was. Then, gradually, she wilted.

After a while she sat down on the ramp on which the match had taken place (I think it is called a piste in fencing parlance) and started to cry. And there she remained.

It was explained some time later that Shin was obliged to stay where she was because, had she left the arena, it would be tantamount to accepting the judge's decision. Meanwhile, her coach was frantically scribbling a hand-written objection (an old-fashioned sport, fencing) while she looked at her feet and tried to regain her composure ahead of the bronze medal match 20 minutes hence.

After this moment of complete and utter dejection – and complete emotional nakedness – one of the stewards came along and (I think) gave her a bottle of water. The moment demanded a consoling arm around the shoulder or, literally, a shoulder to cry on, but perhaps the conventions of the sport do not allow for this, given its martial background. I did not cry but felt her dejection and burden.

In the end, the decision remained. She was forced into the bronze medal match, where she lost. It could not have been any other way because she was now not simply fencing against a Chinese opponent. She was fighting against inevitability and so was up against something both intangible and weightily real. Maybe she was fencing against time. Maybe she was fencing against history. Maybe she was fencing against fate. Whatever she was fighting against other than her opponent before her, she could not win and so it was not fair. The fairness at the professed heart of the event was absent. Here was a sham.

The night before, I had found myself transfixed by a female weightlifter in the clean and jerk.

Residual chauvinist
Two things are important here. It is difficult to watch women lift weights; let us just get that out of the way. Call me a residual chauvinist, but there is a kind of snag, the emotional equivalent of a double take, that makes it just that little bit uncomfortable to see.

Secondly, it is the rhythmical nature of the clean and jerk. The lifter hauls the weights off the floor and then, in a moment of repose and composure, rests the bar on her collarbone. Then comes the final climb to the top. The lifter attempts, through mind-numbingly excruciating pain, to lift ridiculous weights above her head.

A Colombian, Jackelina Heredia Cuesta, was attempting to lift more than twice her body weight. In her first attempt she lifted the weight to halfway but could not push it above her head. She tried again and failed again. Her third try was her last and she had a two-minute window of opportunity in which to be successful. One would not have wagered success, but somehow she lifted the weight above her head and held it there for the required period. This is the best part. Once it is up there you are there with them, to some ridiculously small degree, vicariously sharing in their pain and success. You are wishing them well, although your paths will never cross again.

So there is a fleeting purity of emotion present in all of this, which makes it unlike other forms of spectatorship or fandom in which you root for whom you know by nationality or geography or history. Here it is different. You feel for a weightlifter because she is doing something elementally stupid. Yet you are mutely proud of – even in awe of – her for trying.

Weightlifting has a strange, compelling intimacy to it as well. Heredia Cuesta's coach is a man and it is his job to calm, advise and provide succour. In other words, he is a woman, or at least he is playing a traditional woman's role. In contrast, the weightlifter engages in manly pursuits of power, strength and virility.

Existential intimacy
I am always touched by the relationship of physical as well as existential intimacy that exists between coaches and their protégés in sports such as boxing and weightlifting. It is as though you are watching twins – or different halves of the same being or organism – move in the same direction, united towards a common end. It is beautiful in the way enforced intimacy is when different genders confront a shared physical challenge.

The table-tennis women from China, Singapore and Korea have all had male coaches, wizened elders not given to great displays of emotion. Their empire is the realm of the carefully chosen word, the kingdom of the prosaic pat on the back. They are the sport's sages. The women do, by a wonderful and gently ironic inversion, and the men calm, soothe and instruct.

Then of course there was our Chad le Clos, the boy who became a man in a millisecond. In the same way that he passed out of water and into air on winning his race, he passed from one realm of manhood into another on winning the gold medal in the 200m men's butterfly final. There was a lag. The photographs of him afterwards showed him looking charmingly, compellingly boyish, but it is not a lag that will last for long.

Michael Phelps seemed to be offering advice as they moved to receive their medals, dispensing a kind of "this-is-how-it-works-kid" wisdom as they walked to the podium area. Le Clos is a boy no longer. His life changed in the water, that most life-giving and vital of the elements. We are born in water and Le Clos was born again in the London Olympic pool. Why? Because he is now a grown-up. The fastest man in his race in the world.

I was touched by the discus and hammer throwers; the big girls and guys from Dullsville backwaters – Latvia and Lithuania and Croatia. In these events power meets rhythm and you can see perfection the instant the discus or hammer leaves their hand. Technique is everything, grooved by 10 000 hours of pain.

I knit better with the power sports in which narcissism is not quite as foregrounded as it is in the sprints and shorter distances. The cult of the body is not quite as – how shall I say it? – in your face. Call me a developing-world apologist, but a Latvian hammer thrower does not quite fit into her clobber as an American sprint diva squeezes into hers. As a result, there is a pathos that hovers over the power events. Although, in fairness, pathos has lurked everywhere in these Games. They have deepened our understanding of endurance, nobility, courage and fatigue. They have been theatre of the highest, purest order, over and beyond nationality, which is what they were always meant to be.

Luke Alfred is a former sports editor of the Sunday Times. He now works for Cricket South Africa