The Olympics should come with a health warning. Below the five brightly coloured Olympic rings should be a footnote. “Be advised,” it might read. “The triple jump is not for everyone, easy as it looks. You shouldn’t attempt the heptathlon unless you can spell ‘heptathlon’ first. And certainly don’t go near the diving pool. Unless, of course, you like your water green.”
How often, in the past few days, have we seen middle-aged men disregard the voice of reason and, seduced by the speed, the agility, the carefully applied good looks of the Olympic circus, experience their Luvo or Wayde moment? In a tornado of misguided energy, they don a pair of shorts and rush round the pool for three laps, closely followed by the trusty Labradors. Their families look on, amused and slightly aghast. Wrapped in a replica South African flag after a night in front of the television, they wake the next morning, unable to move.
After the excitement of week one, the bus accidents and couches in the lagoon, we have witnessed the giddy excesses of national hysteria in week two. Running handicapped in lane eight, Wayde van Niekerk wasn’t in the frame — literally. The camera was focusing on Kirani James and LaShawn Merritt over in the middle lanes, allowing Van Niekerk cleverly to sneak past the famed “audience headwind” and place himself in the lead without the world noticing. A very sneaky performance indeed.
The best thing of all about Van Niekerk’s stellar achievement (rather than Crystal Arnold’s fawning interview on SuperSport later) was that his gold medal and world record time in the 400m were commentated on for the BBC by the previous holder, Michael Johnson. The son of a truck driver, in his time Johnson barrelled down the track like a keg of Guinness: not particularly good to look at but leaving you all warm inside afterwards. The keg was magnanimous in defeat, going all Gulf War general on us: “Oh my God! From lane eight, a world record. That was a massacre from Wayde van Niekerk. He just put those guys away.”
With the finals of pretty much everything taking place in Rio this week, massacres haven’t been the only thing on the menu. There has also been loss — and the anguish that accompanies it. Take the Brazilian women’s football team, who lost their semifinal in a penalty shootout to the Swedes on Tuesday night. As we know, penalty shootouts are dramatic affairs. They provide opportunities for elation but, be warned, that dunce moment when a kick is saved or spooned over the crossbar is never far away.
As it is for footballers, so it is for commentators. One of them pointed out helpfully (if somewhat self-evidently) as the penalties unfolded that “Barbara [the name of the Brazilian goalkeeper] was very quickly off her line”. He did one better moments later when Brazil’s second penalty was saved by Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. “It is now, surely,” he warbled portentously, “advantage Sweden.” We thanked him silently for his Einstein moment and turned the volume down.
Despite the lottery of penalties, the match was full of fun. This was partly because, as is the Brazilian custom, players are often known by their first name. Barbara’s full name is Barbara Micheline do Monte Barbosa, so it makes sense to simply call her Barbara for fear that a sentence using her full name would be impossible to complete. She has mates in the side like Marta and Formiga, so it all felt rather chummy, being on first-
name terms with Brazilian women footballers like this, less an Olympic semifinal than a visit to the hair salon or nail parlour.
What was noticeable, however, was that women know how to behave towards their teammates when they have had a penalty saved. They make a physical fuss. They hug and soothe. Men, in many respects the more useless of the two genders, would rather be transferred to Free State Stars or have a leg amputated than show a disgraced mate any physical comfort. Penalty shootouts see men stare fixedly into row P of the western stand as though seat 23 contains the meaning of life. Maybe, just maybe, seat 23 in row P contains the secret to taking the perfect penalty.
As we all know, Caster Semenya has a rather troubling effect on fixed notions of gender, her Y chromosome meaning that she is neither one nor the other. This has made a great deal of important people (mostly men) very, very uncomfortable, which is surely no bad thing. Then again, her victory in the women’s 800m has been described by some as a foregone conclusion. If the outcome of any sporting pursuit is known in advance, it moves from the realms of drama into that of choreographed ritual. That might be fun, argue some, but it’s not sport as most understand it.