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Britain goes for gold in Olympic overenthusiasm


Tokyo Olympics updates

Were you up for the synchronised diving? Or did you, like me, find yourself diverted from work by fears that our taekwondo finalist was conceding too many gam-jeoms?

What is it about the Olympics that can suddenly make otherwise sane people care whether an athlete they’ve never heard of can clinch gold in a sport they had never previously cared about?

There are many definitions of patriotism, but perhaps the clearest sign is a sudden emotional engagement with a sport you would never normally give the time of day to and which has secured extra funding simply because it might add to Britain’s medal count. Pity the nation that pins its hopes on events with the word “synchronised” in its title.

These irrational Olympic enthusiasms are all the more odd when one considers the many flaws in the Games. There is the vaunting pomposity of the International Olympic Committee, the vast expense and waste and of course the utter eradication of any amateur ethos, so that swimmers now compete in body suits made from the skin of genetically modified dolphins, while athletes spend years training at high altitude and eating probiotic meals prepared by mystical shamans.

But this is the genius and the madness of the Olympics. It is rather like the constant badging of certain dates as international days of whatever. For two weeks every four years in August, we have a national day of suddenly giving a hoot about dressage.

This thought was driven home as we found ourselves sucked into the live coverage of the men’s triathlon, an event admittedly livened up by a false start that might have seen the competitors swimming into the propeller shaft of a nearby camera boat. Mercifully, no one was hurt, though this added element of danger could definitely bring more viewers to the sport.

Triathlon is an impressive feat. Lasting only a little under two hours, it requires almost as much stamina to watch live. But it doesn’t matter, there is a Brit with a medal chance. Just be thankful we have no prospects in the 50km walk.

Clearly the time difference from Japan makes these Olympics a less engaging event for Brits. While millions were glued to their screens for the highlights of London 2012, most of us will content ourselves with waking up to the good news. It is nonetheless a bizarre situation when your first thought on rising on a Monday morning is “did Adam Peaty win the breaststroke?” when only a week ago you would have been struggling to remember his name.

After a run of success we are now well trained in enthusiasm for the track cycling events (although it remains a mystery why so many of Team GB’s best medal prospects are in sitting-down events such as rowing, sailing, equestrianism and bikes).

But the multiple indoor cycling events, like the keirin, the omnium and the team pursuit, with their obscure rules and tactics, seem designed only to ensure that there are enough events to justify the building of a velodrome. Why is a normal sprint not enough? Why do we need a sprint from behind a motorbike?

Could we not at least make them a little more relevant? Why not a sprint with meal delivery? “Oh no, Chris, he’s completely messed up the Chinese takeaway.” “Don’t worry, Claire, he’s still got the six items of groceries, which remains his strongest event.” The cycle sprint with pizza would be very dramatic. “Disaster for Team GB as they drop the pepperoni.”

And, of course, we are all commentators now, suddenly experts in these arcane sports and ready to opine on the intricacies of events we watch once every four years. People who barely know one end of a diving board from the other are fretting that “he’s late out of his reverse twist and pike”.

I do not wish to disrespect any Olympic athlete. I am in awe of the dedication and fitness of anyone who competes at this level and was especially pleased for diver Tom Daley’s win, even if it was in a synchronised sport. Any Olympian deserves all the prestige and financial reward they can glean. It simply feels bizarre that, every four (or in this case five) years, a large part of the nation suddenly starts to care about fringe sports.

No self-respecting nation gets worked up about dressage, synchronised anything (unless Tom Daley is in it) or any other event that cannot be determined by an objective measurement such as furthest, fastest or highest. These seem more skills than sports. A possible exception can be made for gymnastics, though only on the grounds that I quite like it. And as for shooting, I ask you. It has all the thrills of synchronised auditing. 

Yet for two weeks we are a nation obsessed with sitting-down sports and anything else that might produce a medal. So come on niche sports stars. Your country, briefly, needs you.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Robert is hosting a panel, “Boris Johnson, Brexit — and bust?”, at the FT Weekend Festival on Saturday September 7

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