An Olympics the British Could Win

The question is: why? I scoured the papers. I listened intently to the radio sports reports (well, at least when driving to the park to take the dog for walks). Even the endless TV coverage drew an equal blank.

Nobody, just nobody, mentioned my Olympic gold.

You, no doubt, will contend that the reason for this discouraging indifference is that I did not actually perform at the Olympics at all, let alone win a gold medal. But I believe this to be an irrelevant and specious argument.

The real point is: why?

Why was I not representing my country? Why was I not selected when obviously I was gold-medal material?

It is quite clear that they needed me. The British media have done nothing but groan and bemoan the poor showing of our athletes. They blame various things for this, but chiefly a lack of what they call "facilities," which means, essentially, funds. British athletes are known for training abroad, where there are such things as equipment, and for being supported financially by their wives (or husbands or sisters or cousins - whom they reckon up in dozens - or their aunts).

There is also the question of encouragement.

One of Great Britain's few Olympic gold medalists went so far as to publicly voice his disappointment that when he returned in triumph (or so he thought) from Atlanta to London's Heathrow Airport, the only people there to welcome him were his immediate family. He compared this with a tumultuous gold-medal-heroine's reception afforded an Irish swimmer on her homecoming.

I have long maintained that, had my parents shown more interest when I swam 19 lengths of the seaside pool without stopping, I would have taken my place among the greatest of the great washed-and-goggled crowd. But they said, "Did you, dear?" when I told them of my triumph. They meant it kindly. But I could sense that their immediate interest was lunch.

I could have been a composer, too. We had a piano. And apart from someone playing an occasional "Chopsticks," I was the only one to use it. My older brothers listened to records. They conducted them like Beecham or Barbirolli. But they did not play.

I composed a tune one day. I worked at it for a good half-hour. I asked one of my brothers to listen to it. It did not have very many notes, so he reluctantly admitted that he could give me a brief audience.

He listened. I played. He said - as he walked off - "I think I have heard it somewhere before...." There was irony in his voice.

I decided to be a great playwright instead, and set about adapting an episode from "Winnie-the-Pooh" for my puppets.

So - "facilities" would seem to have less to do with doing well than encouragement or even interest. We had a fine piano. The seaside pool was second to none. I have not become a swimming composer.

But I think there is another reason why my own country, while rather good at inventing games and sports, appears to be less and less adept at winning them. Some blame a lack of competitive spirit. It is true that as a nation we still secretly maintain a soft spot for the notion that beating other people is somehow not entirely generous. But I believe it is more a matter of the Olympics simply not including what we are good at.

PROF. George Steiner pointed out in a recent lecture that the ancient Greeks included in their sports competitions such things as poetry and oratory. He went so far as to suggest that the arts should find their way back into the Olympics.

I guffawed inwardly at the un-Britishness of this idea.

Admittedly, we do display an unfortunate inclination toward more and more prizes - for poems and books and paintings and such. But that the cameras at the next Olympics should swing over from long-jumpers and gymnasts to poets reading or potters potting (the commentator judiciously assessing and prophesying medals for pentameters or centering), and do so with no sense of absurdity, seems at least preposterous.

As things stand, there are difficulties enough in competitively judging those events in which athleticism and art coincide. Ice dancing is just one example. Ice dancers have actually been penalized, had crucial points deducted, for being too inventive.

Inventive is what art is all about. Art has to do with the extension of possibility inherent in breaking rules. Competitive sports without rules is a contradiction in terms. You cannot have competition without rules. Competitive artists? Can there be such a species?

It is hard to imagine that poetry or painting will be on display as tests of national prowess at the next summer Olympics in Sydney.

In the meantime, however, I will naturally continue my campaign for Olympic recognition of gardening and dog-walking.

These, I feel strongly, are sports at which not a few British competitors are absolutely bound to trounce the rest of the world. And a gold medalist in either discipline would ensure at least a ticker-tape parade down Pall Mall, if not a knighthood at the palace.

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