Watching the Olympics is rather like being reacquainted with old friends after an absence of four years. Here’s the absurdly powerful Thai weightlifter able to lift twice her body weight, there’s the Chinese child gymnast who should be grappling with the rudiments of algebra and saving her pocket money for Saturday afternoons at the movies.
Elsewhere we have the Colombian Sevens rugby players, a team so endearingly useless they look like they were rounded up in a Bogota park on the eve of the Games and hastily given national colours.
Thankfully, not everyone in Rio looks as though they are playing an alien sport. The Chinese synchronised divers are so perfect, doing everything with such faultless harmony, that watching them seems to involve some trick of perspective. Is there a mirror somewhere? A split screen? No, it’s that deep Chinese cultural pre-disposition to subsume any individuality in the pursuit of the greater good. Long may the mighty two dive as one.
For us unlucky South Africans, all of this is frequently commentated on by Australians. The normally unflappable Gerald de Kock made an appearance in the men’s cycling event on the weekend but then – as it were – promptly disappeared into the peloton.
No sooner had he vanished than one started to miss him and his comforting, moderate tones. The Australians are a drab lot, full of cultural biases and blind spots masquerading as objectivity, and they have a certain smug timbre to their voices that makes drinking crushed glass a more enticing prospect.
In the early days of the rowing in the lagoon behind the famous Copacabana beach, one of them blithely invented a new country. They have no competitors at the Olympics, weren’t present at last Friday night’s opening ceremony and couldn’t be found on the map. But here were the “Dominican Republic of Congo” out on the water, doing their bit for confused viewers and non-countries everywhere.
Thankfully, the Dominicans (or should that be the Congolese?) didn’t make much of a splash on the water. It could have led to a diplomatic incident involving three countries arguing about the existence of an ambiguous fourth. The Games might never have recovered.
In the event, causing a splash was left to a Serbian pairs crew who seemed to be gliding along at a good lick before they suddenly capsized. This is known in rowing parlance as “crabbing”, which gives a good idea of the manoeuvre’s utter lack of dignity. At its best, rowing is smooth and graceful. Crabbing, however, is not. The Serbians’ boat capsizing was caused by a treacherous crosswind barrelling down off the lagoon’s surrounding peaks. It must be rather like tucking into mains on the overnight flight to London (high, high above the Dominican Republic of Congo, surely) and hitting a pocket of turbulence that leaves a large Chardonnay stain down the front of your shirt. Suggested headline: “Crab steals Serbs’ show.”
The crosswind got so bad that Sunday’s entire rowing schedule was cancelled. We now understand why there is no culture of rowing in Brazil – it is too treacherous. Perhaps the world’s rowers should have been absorbed into a sport that the Brazilians themselves seem to take to, like beach volleyball.
Unlike, say, fencing or weightlifting, diving or archery, I find myself wondering about beach volleyball’s historical and athletic bona fides. Could this be a sport invented to prolong the intervals between eating ice cream? Perhaps beach volleyball is a vague sporting equivalent of a boy band – except that it operates the other way round. At least we adults can channel-hop past it, safe in the knowledge that there are 13-year-old boys the world over getting disproportionately excited about whether the Brazilian women have made it in the competition’s quarterfinals.
Opening week at Rio was also devoted to splashy things: aquatic events like swimming, diving and water polo. On one of the rare occasions a commentator told us anything useful, it was that ultra-modern swimsuits are apparently so skintight that it can take up to half an hour to put one on. Blisters have been known to appear on female swimmers’ fingertips, so difficult is it to roll the costume on. This raises the intriguing possibility of the havoc a physical blemish – a mole or pimple – might do in terms of preparation. Would this necessitate an early wake-up call from reception? Perhaps women swimmers need to forego sleep so that they leave themselves enough time to get into their gear. Eating, presumably, is ruled right out, as is that occasional double Martini.
No wonder there are no South African women swimmers at the Games. They’ve wisely decided that they’d rather eat the odd square meal and live something approaching a normal life than take half a lifetime to get into a costume.
My personal highlight of the first week in Rio involved a Hungarian fencer by the name of Emese Szasz. Unlike every other competitor in every discipline I can think of, Szasz didn’t commit the sin of taking herself too seriously, coming into one of her earlier epee duels with a large grin on her mug. She fenced as though she was enjoying herself, which is perhaps why she won the gold medal in her event.
As she beat her Italian opponent in the final, her face burst into a rainbow of emotions: joy, relief and delight, with a close-to-the surface tearfulness threatening to overwhelm everything else. This, when all is said and done, is what the Olympics are all about: winning (if you can) and participating (if you’re good enough) rather than being too fixated by maintaining the narcissistic fripperies.
Given Hungarians’ long history of success in the pool as swimmers and water polo players, it comes as no surprise to learn that Szasz was once a swimmer herself. In a fine example of what must pass for deadpan Hungarian humour, we are told that “she grew tired of it”. Whether or not this refers to getting into her costume, we’re not sure, except to say that, as a left-hander, she might have felt she had a competitive advantage doing something else. That something else was fencing, a sport that has a legitimate claim to be a sport rather than a pastime that seems designed to lever up television ratings and ice-cream sales.
On the early Rio evidence it looks like Chad le Clos has – in a manner of speaking – already had his ice-cream moment. There was a hint of vague surprise as Le Clos kissed his silver medal after coming second in the men’s 100m freestyle final but, alas, no goofy grin late on Tuesday night when Chad was pipped into fourth in his signature event – the 200m butterfly finals.
With Le Clos’s failure to defend his London title, it’s all beginning to look horribly familiar. Like the long-running spat he has with Michael Phelps, who won gold in the 200m ’fly, we South Africans are a nation of boasters and blusterers. We talk big and act small. Now we hope that the rugby sevens, the rowers and next week’s athletes can right the listing ship. We wouldn’t want to crab like the Serbians and capsize completely, after all.