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Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Pictures for sale!


I have some pictures for sale, they can be yours in exchange for cold, hard, currency. They are nice pictures, too, done by my own fair hand. Tell your friends! Tell your family! Tell them I need to pay my cat's dental bill!

Actually, forget that last one. But if you are interested in owning these pictures, or know someone who would be, please let me know. My email address is downonthefarm AT gmail DOT com.

Wildebeest Scream (10" x 7", pen, ink and watercolour on 220 gsm cartridge paper; £40)
Amy Winehouse (10" x 8", Acrylic paint on 220 gsm cartridge paper; £45)
Marabou Stork (A4, pen, ink and watercolour on 220 gsm cartridge paper; £40)
Red monkey (A5, tempera paint and coloured pencils on 220 gsm watercolour paper; £17.50)

OR buy the whole lot in a massive art bundle for £120, all in! Start your own art gallery! Wow your friends and work colleagues! Show those people you just met again through Facebook how far you have come!

Lingua Franca

Thrilling news today from the hotbed, par 6, world of professional women's golf, as it is announced that all the players on the tour will have their membership suspended from 2009 if they cannot pass an oral English language exam. Ostensibly, this is for better - well, easier - relations with the media. Well, the big blubbery American media. Smacks of ingratitude, it fair does, it does, when one of the 45 Korean golfers on the tour wins a tour event in Korea and then gives their acceptance speech and media interviews in Korean! These people have to realise what side their bread is buttered on!

I anticipate the test will be akin to the bit at the end of The Great Escape when Richard Attenborough and co. are about to get on the bus. "Well done on your round today", someone will say in Korean. The golfer's guard temporarily down, the house of cards will tumble along with it. Aha! We caught you, just learning some English platitudes and gratitudes phonetically! We all heard you saying 'Fuck!' in Korean when you screwed your tee shot on the ninth into the de-militarised zone!

The LPGA are doing some important, pioneering work here. It's something I'd like to see expanded. Let's force anyone who ever speaks anywhere near a video camera, microphone, telephone or an English-speaker to pass an English oral exam. There's 1.3 billion Chinese for a start, and I can't understand a word of what they're on about.

Of course, when changes as major as this are being affected, it goes without saying that all languages other than English will be banned from sport, and the athletes forced to take stringent English examinations. The first casualty of this will undeniably be English football players.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

The Horror

I have loved old schlocky horror films for a long while now, particularly the British ones from the Hammer studios. In fact, there's a certain grade of British film - usually of the mystery, thriller or horror genre, but not always - which thrill me endlessly. The Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films are a good example of this. Another is that marvellous British invention, the horror anthology.

People who read Sight and Sound magazine will, no doubt, tell you that the correct term here is "Portmanteau Horror". Whatever the nomenclature, I have a voracious appetite for them. I can't even remember the names and details of all the ones I have seen, and for the purposes of this am working from the four I have seen the most or remember the best: Dead of Night, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The latter I watched last night, so it is particularly inspiring and fresh.

You probably know the format. A certain group of people find themselves ensconced together, usually against their will. There, they relate to each other scary stories, bad dreams or dreadful thoughts. Each one is then presented for us as a mini-film within the feature. Indeed, for Dead of Night - probably the pioneering film of this genre - each film-within-the film had a different director which afforded them all a slightly different feel. My favourite, I must confess, is Tales from the Crypt. It has the perfect combination of moralising, horror, silliness, frights, pathos, bad acting and over-saturated colour.

As with any set of generic conventions, there are certain rules that these films tend to abide by. Dead of Night is something of an exception to many of these, but as the trailblazing film of its kind can probably be excused this. Besides, it contains perhaps the single most memorable mini-story of any of the four films I've picked out, the one which has had the most cultural impact beyond people who watch films after 2 a.m.

1. Sequester your dramatis personae

This is very important. The normal number of people for this is generally five, plus one other mystery man to tweasle things along. In Dr. Terror's, the five find themselves stuck in each other's company on a train journey with Peter Cushing as a mad old Tarot reader. In Crypt, a group of people wander off from a tour of an old Monastery to be confronted with a mystery monk. In Vault, the five people find themselves spat out at a strangely opulent room after their lift goes all the way to the bottom of the building.

2. Ensure that your characters are all completely amoral monsters

Foul swines who act in ways not even covered by the Deadly Sins are vital here. Murderers, cheats, cowards, crooks. This is very important, too, principally as a way to ease the audience towards point three, perhaps the most important point.

3. At the end, reveal the fact that all the people have actually died for real, and not just in their tales of woe

When one first encounters this, it can feel like a bit of a numbing experience. But you grow to relish it, I find. My favourite exposition of this important plot development comes in Dr. Terror, where a fluttering newspaper on a deserted platform reveals that the train on which they had been riding had crashed fatally, with no survivors. Now, THAT is drama!

4. If your cast list doesn't raise (a) an eyebrow and (b) a chuckle, you have failed

For these ensemble affairs, casting is by no means an easy process. Many different actors may be needed to cover all the stories. The more big-name performers you can get, the better. The more surprising their decision to appear in such a film, all the better! If you peruse the four IMDb links to the films in question at the beginning of this post, you will see a cavalcade of actors - Shakespearean heavyweights, hammy melodrama specialists, old dames, soap stars, comedy greats, horror legends, the lot. My favourite: the opening titles of Vault of Horror trying to establish mood whilst also revealing that one of the players is Terry-Thomas. I say! The film's credibility is not helped even beyond the title sequence when, in the first scene, Tom Baker enters the lift sporting a terrifying ginger beard. There's also the hint of a dynasty developing... Mervyn Johns stars in Dead of Night whilst his daughter Glynis features as Terry-Thomas' put-upon wife in Vault of Horror.

5. A combination of classic horror tales and inventive new twists is the optimum

None of the films in question here can quite compete with Tales from the Crypt here. However, all of them have at least one mini-film which will grab your attention. In Dead of Night, it is the famous story of Michael Redgrave slowly becoming possessed by his ventriloquist's dummy and going insane. This film alone is responsible for 90% of all phobias of puppets in the Western world. For Doctor Terror's, the one which always stood out for me is Roy Castle's tale. A jazz musician playing that damn dirty voodoo black magic shit in his sets, Roy is somewhat taken aback when the brambles around his house start to completely subsume it and anything else in their path. I can honestly say I have never done any gardening since, without thinking about Roy Castle.

In Vault of Horror, the standout tale for me is Tom Baker's, and again features voodoo. An artist, scorned by the art community so as to artificially decrease the prices of his work so they can later make huge profits on it, Baker returns from his exile in Haiti a bitter man who has sold his soul to a voodoo preacher. Painting portraits of his three bitter enemies, he amends them in such a way as to bring terrible things upon them all. But Tom Baker has a sword of Damocles - shortly before getting his voodoo powers, he's painted a self-portrait, whose safety he has to guard at all times! In fact, this film deserves praise for something else beyond its stories - knockabout comedy stylings! A group of vampires sticking a tap into a man's neck and using him as a wine box? Glynis Johns accidentally destroying a house which she was just trying to tidy for her fastidious husband? Gold!

I just love Tales from the Crypt, though. Every story is memorable, all for different reasons and some for all the reasons at once. The first story features Joan Collins, murdering her husband on Christmas Eve. Whilst trying to dispose of his body, a newsflash on the radio reveals news of an escaped madman. Joan is increasingly terrorised by this man, unable to call the police on account of having a stiff on her hands, before her daughter lets the man - dressed as Father Christmas - in, for festive japes.

The second tale features a man cheating on his wife with some bit of fluff. In a delightfully recursive morality fable, he and his bint are involved in a horrible road crash in which she is blinded and he is killed. NOT that he knows this! Superb screaming here, as he catches sight of himself.

The third tale features an odious man, forcing a delightful old fellow out of his house by a concerted campaign of cruelty which causes him to commit suicide after a raft of malicious Valentines. After every setback - the local children being told not to play with him, his job and his pet dogs being taken away, the man - played by Peter Cushing - takes it on the chin, confiding with a picture of his dear departed wife. It's particularly crushing, this, bearing in mind that Cushing made this film shortly after losing his own wife, something which was the single most devastating event of his life. In a film where the blood is bright orange, the skin is rubber and the acting is suitably dubious, Cushing's performance is a beacon. Actually quite profoundly moving and, yet, ultimately insane and brilliant. It takes a fine actor to get us to really connect with his character, as Mr. Grimsdyke rises from the grave a year on from his death to RIP THE HEART out of the nasty property tycoon before writing a poem in his blood on a handy piece of paper.

The fourth tale follows the old rule about abiding by horror classics, and is a reworking of the old tale of The Monkey's Paw. In this version, a man faces financial ruin and his desperate wife makes a wish on an old Oriental trinket to be wealthy. The method? Well, it turns out to be an insurance payout following her husband's death. Later wishes bring the poor man back as an embalmed corpse, who, thanks to some careless wording, in unable to die. Living the rest of your life in agony, AND being poor. Life sucks sometimes.

The final fable features a bluff old colonel becoming the manager of a care home for the blind. As the blind people freeze and starve to death on a diet of gruel, the man and his fearsome guard dog eat fine beef and drink fine wine in a splendidly opulent office. The blind are having none of this, and rise up against him. First they steal his dog and starve it for days. Then they trap the old colonel within a beserk Crystal Maze-style room with all lights out and the walls sewn with razor blades which they, the blind, had constructed. And designed. The dog is then set loose, eating his owner's face off.

Oh, what a film. I must heartily recommend you watch it.

Monday, 25 August 2008

London Olympics, Day -1431: Boredom

After I watched the 10 o'clock news last night on BBC 1, I realised that I was already bored of the London 2012 Olympics. This is utterly spectacular as an achievement, and one the BBC decided to embellish with a programme this afternoon featuring the return of our heroic Olympic team. Several hours of shots of people alighting an aircraft, most of whom no-one has ever heard of. What an event.

I thought I might take this opportunity to once again mercilessly plug my other blog, where I provide a service much like my Dotlympics one, only less frequently. On the plus side, it tends to be more knowledgeably, as it is about motor racing, a sport I understand*. And you're none of you paying me for this, so can have no complaints.

It is here: Toto Roche's Flag

It only has one post on it at the moment, but you're not my mother, I don't have to please you. It will grow organically as and when I have ideas of things to write there and on that subject.

P.S. If you are my mother, hello.

* I understand the sport but not why I like it, incidentally. No more questions.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Day 16: I've run out of Olympics

It's Day 16 of the Beijing Olympics, which means I have just woken up to find it's all been a dream and I have to go through it all over again. Luckily, Hazel Irvine has reduced her restraining order on me to 20 yards and I have a really long stick. With a rubber glove tied to one end. And a feather.

The closing ceremony was a sad occasion. Not because a great sporting event has now come to a close, after all, all good things and all that. No, it was sad because in passing the Olympic flag over to the next hosts, 2 billion TV viewers all got a crystal-clear view as to what a total spanner the Mayor of London is. Many of these viewers will live in countries without a strong or consistent history of democratic government. Many of them will now realise they're not missing out much.

This much said, where the Olympic games doesn't really matter too much. Beijing's efforts have been universally well-received and will be, no doubt, fondly remembered. But that is the way of a games which runs as smoothly as 2008's has done. All the human drama and sporting excitement is by no means location-specific. The 10,000 metres was not run on the Great Wall of China, nor will Buckingham Palace host the Archery in the Queen's private quarters in 2012. London, then, doesn't have to worry about being as impressive as Beijing - only as efficient, organised and polished. Finishing all the venues on time and getting the transport infrastructure sorted out good and early would be a very good start. The key way for an Olympic games to be famous is for it to be faceless. The key way for it to be infamous is for all hell to break loose.

As an aside, during his interview with the BBC this morning, Gordon Brown displayed a number of gestures which were direct copies of those used by Tony Blair. It was quite sweet, really. Hopefully the Prime Minister in 4 years time - I'm assuming his name may well be David - will display as much schoolboy-like excitement as the current Premier did. And refrain from putting a windmill on Sue Barker and calling her Sustainable Sue.

Incidentally, in a piece of staggeringly fucking useless news, the BBC informs me that the start of the London Olympics is only 1432 days away.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Days 14 and 15: End of term atmosphere


It's day 15 of the Olympics, so John Inverdale and Sir Steve Redgrave are wanking each other off into Gabby Logan's hair. Then Hazel Irvine comes in frigging herself off and accidentally shits all over the floor in a great deluge of diarrhoea containing whole beansprouts. Claire Balding sees this and starts to lick it up, in so doing causing the large boil on her back to burst, revealing a cascade of writhing pus-coated maggots. Jill Douglas, being done up the arse by Jake Humphries notices this and laughs, breaking Jake's concentration for long enough to make him fart in Sue Barker's face. Sue takes the guff, and, shouting at Colin Jackson to put a foot up her, starts to lick her own tits. As all this goes down, Adrian Chiles enters, revealing his latest acquisition - a Prince Albert. He observes the great midden of shit, pus, maggots, blood and spunk and promptly shovels one out right into Jonathan Edwards' face as he prays for all our fucking souls.

Also, it's the day when controversy reigns supreme in the Biffa Baconesque-splendour of the Taekwondo, a sport already slightly over-complicated by having nonsensical and boring rules. The trouble with such sports - Judo is another - is that you daren't point this fact out to any of its competitors lest you end up in traction. Even an understanding of the sport isn't always enough to keep you out of the firing line, as the referee in the Arman Chilmanov - Angel Valodia Matos match found out today. Having disqualified Matos for an infringement too boring and pointless to repeat here, the Cuban decided the best course of action available to him would be to kick the umpire in the head.

It's difficult to know exactly what he thought this bold protest would go on to achieve. Earlier in the day, British competitor Sarah Stevenson was reinstated in the competition following her earlier loss to Chen Zhong of China. The judges seemingly completely failed to see Stevenson kicking Chen right in the face shortly before the end of the bout, a move normally reserved only for Premiership football managers. The British team appealed, and after having studied various angles and pictures of Chen Zhong being KICKED IN THE FACE, Stevenson was re-instated by the officials, going on to secure a bronze medal. You have to question, though, how it is that in a sport where you can miss out on progression because no-one saw you kick someone's teeth in, that umpires don't cop this sort of flak on a more regular basis.

Matos has, naturally enough, been disqualified from competition for life. Quite whether or not he considers it all to have been worthwhile, I doubt anyone is quite brave enough to ask.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Day 13: Relaying bad news

It's day 13 of the Olympics, so I'm starting to notice the little signs that things in Beijing are winding down. The commentary team have started to swear more often, Sue Barker has stopped shaving her legs, and the 4 x 100 metre relay heats have started.

The relay is an interesting event inasmuch as a well-drilled team will, more often than not, defeat the outright fastest team. Great Britain's men are the reigning Olympic champions, as to bear this theory out. This year's relay semi-finals, however, proved a step too far for their successors, a baton mishap on the last changeover leading to disqualification. They were not alone, though.

Team USA have had a fairly torrid time down t'mill this Olympics track and field program. As I write this, the medal table shows that the US are in second place with 27 gold medals, with Team GB third with 17. Had Michael Phelps been born in Rutland, however, it would be a very different situation. The United States team hasn't had a particularly stellar Olympics by their lofty standards. Nowhere is this felt more than in the athletics stadium, normally their own personal fiefdom. In Beijing, though, their sprinters have been put to the sword by their Caribbean counterparts, and other athletes have started to look pretty vulnerable from all sides. In terms of numbers, the US leads the medal table with 15, but with only three of these are golds, leaving them trailing Jamaica and Russia. Getting it together in the relay would provide a welcome boost for their athletic team's flagging morale*.

This is not how it turned out. Both men's and women's teams bungled their final changeover, neither team making the finish. All signs pointed to the fact it wasn't going to be their day even before the gun. In a soggy Birds Nest Stadium, the organisers hadn't got any "USA" labels printed for the athletes to pin onto their chests. The team, already up against it rather, could not have been particularly enthused to see their teammates each wearing a bit of A4 paper with USA handwritten on it in magic marker. I had wondered if, in keeping with this school sports day vibe, they would be given an egg and spoon instead of a baton. No such luck, there, either.

It was a mixed blessing, that, as the baton system didn't work out very well for them anyway. Maybe the problem is that a hollow metal tube doesn't quite inspire the sort of reverence and respect which the event demands. After all, it's all in the baton. It's the baton that has to be carried round, the runners are merely couriers. My suggestion is that instead of a baton, each country is made to ferry around a gleaming but fragile bowl of all of their nation's hopes and dreams for the future. Or a big dildo. Something to focus the mind on the changeovers.

If I were coaching a relay team, I'd suggest that the baton be passed between teammates in a stationary fashion, possibly accompanied by a warm handshake and some pleasantries. I reckon that, with the rich seam of slapstick comedy bound to be breaking out all around them, they would still be a good bet for a medal.

* since I started writing this, the USA has just won its 28th gold, and it's 4th on the track, just to prove me to be an idiot.

Today's sport

Today, I've been getting excitable about FIELD EVENTS. The two big British hopes that the BBC have been following today are Goldie Sayers in the women's javelin, the first British Olympian to be named after a Blue Peter dog since the great marathon runner Shep Harris in 1976; and triple-jumper Phillips Idowu, who I think was named after a video recorder. Sayers broke the British record in a bold and largely unexpected tilt at a medal, finishing down in 4th place. The surprise winner, ahead of the German and Russian favourites, was the Czech thrower Barbora Spotakova having the sort of day you normally only read about on the back of cereal packets. Having previously only ever thrown a pencil into a ditch, Spotakova hurled her javelin over 70 metres, the second-longest throw in history, to secure the gold. I think she was as surprised as anyone else. It was a reminder that it's always a highlight of any Olympics, when an unfancied competitor has the day of their life.

Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Idowu sits in second place in the triple jump final. The soggy sandpit must be like holding the horizontal jump finals in Filey, which can only help the two British competitors. The fact that Idowu is the favourite, however, is likely to prove nothing but a hindrance on a day in the stadium where history has decided to play its jokers.

Cheating bastards update

In an unusual twist, four horses - all from different countries - have been caught cheating. Their horse blood at a routine horse blood test showed traces of Capsaicin, which as any curry fan can tell you is the thing in chilli peppers that makes them hot. I can only assume unscrupulous competitors from Ireland, Brazil, Norway and Germany have got a Tabasco saucy finger and stuck it right up their horse's arse to make them run faster. I knew that doping was an ongoing problem in sport, but I had no idea it could spread to injecting a horse with Chicken Tonight.

++NEWSFLASH++

Liudmyla Blonska spotted eating three Bombay Bad Boy Pot Noodles before Heptathlon 1500 metres. More as we get it.

Days 12 and 13: A laziness round-up


It was Day 12 of the Beijing Olympics yesterday, which meant I got so engrossed in my oil painting of a naked Jill Douglas ravishing Dame Kelly Holmes I forgot to do any blogging of Sports Issues. It was quite a piece of bad timing, because yesterday was another notable day of Sports Happenings.

The big news was Usain Bolt, for once in his life running as fast as he could for the entire distance, in the 200 metres. The rest of the field looked flabbergasted as he disappeared into the distance, and at the line he broke Michael Johnson's 12-year old world record. It was a time which I clearly remember being set at the Atlanta games, so now having seen the mark be broken twice in front of my very eyes, it is now a very special world record for me. From this moment onwards I insist on only counting in base-200. I could pass comment on how astonishing an athlete Usain Bolt really is, but I'm sure you've all read all the superlatives everywhere else already. So, what I will say is this: Michael Johnson is probably the single most impressive sprinter I've seen in my lifetime. Anyone who can run fast enough to make Usain Bolt actually run flat out - and even dip at the line - to beat their best time has got to be the best of the best of the best.

Day 12's sport

Yesterday felt like a very hockeyey day, and so it proved, with the Women's Hockey semi-final between Argentina and the Netherlands. Hockey is a sport which people who enjoy football will often start to follow during the Olympics. This is mainly because hockey is played with swift, neat, passing moves and exciting teamwork. Hockey is played the way football should be played but never is, in other words. By Jake the Peg.

All this said, there are some exciting and bewildering differences which are just bound to get my juices up.

The first thing I noticed is the opportunity to accessorise. I had imagined that the hockey sticks would be painted up in team colours and handed out to the players by a faceless drone before the game began. But the hockeyists all provided their own bats. It's an opportunity all the top world footballers would kill for. In the absence of a third, wooden, leg, David Beckham has had to turn to tattoos to such an extent some of his earlier ones are now being tippexed out and worked back over. The hockey players are able to neatly sidestep septicaemia with the simple expedient of a trip to JJB Sports. Argentina's star player, Aymar, thrilled the world - both with her doomed attempt to win the match on her own - and through her matching pink shoes/ pink stick combo. All marvelled. Except, possibly, the Dutch, who play a brand of the game best described as Total Hockey.

Running out comfortable 5-2 winners, Holland's success was largely due to their mastery of that other intriguing aspect of Hockery-me-Hock, the Penalty Corner. Awarded for any infraction in the defending team's shooting circle, the defending team must retreat to their goal line whilst the attacking team go through a carefully choreographed routine which normally ends in a ROCK HARD ball flying through the air (at head height) towards the goal.

This is such an important scoring opportunity that the majority of teams now have a specialist shooter. Some of them are so specialised that they are only brought onto the field of play for a corner to take place. They have evolved to be brilliant at shooting, with a huge muscular upper-body and trunk-like arms, but their legs are so atrophied that they cannot walk. Possibly. The Dutch specialist was able to both score from short corners AND play hockey, and she put Argentina to the sword. Argentina's game plan was seemingly reliant on the dribbling skill of - almost inevitably - "The Maradona of Hockey" Aymar. The Dutch team neatly circumvented this tactical masterstroke by keeping the ball at all times.

A word must also go to the Hockey goalkeeper. These brave, fearless, lunatic, prematurely-aged souls are entrusted with the hopes and dreams of a nation. A responsibility discharged in this case by very hard projectiles being fired at you with sticks. The reason so many hockey games are so high scoring compared with football, I think, is basic self-preservation instincts. At the post-match festivities, I imagine the outfield players celebrate or commiserate over a foaming pint of mead, pausing only to sing a filthy song or spit out a few teeth. The custodians, in the meantime, are carried off to a darkened room readt go into therapy. Or, if they've been forced to face a penalty stroke, a medically-controlled deep narcotic coma.

I, in the spirit of Great Journalism, made a list of points during the game which I felt needed to be covered. Now, in the spirit of Lazy Journalism, I present the remainder which I was unable to shoehorn into velvety prose.
  1. From the normal corner, players do not tend to head the ball.
  2. The match surface is butcher's grass watered to the point at which a football match would probably be abandoned.
  3. You are seemingly not permitted to hit your opponents with your stick.
  4. Giant orange inflatable novelty hockey sticks have been invented and are available to buy.
Cheating bastard update

Five athletes have so far been caught being dirty, filthy, cheating bastards so far. Day 12, however, saw the first medal-winning cheating bastard. Ukraine's Liudmyla Blonska won silver in the Heptatlon but was caught on the goofballs. Her B sample is expected to confirm the findings today, at which point Blonska will be facing a lifetime ban, having been caught doping twice in the past five years.

Two points. One, surely the answer to this is simple: lifetime bans from drug cheats immediately that the first offence takes place. This way we can try to avoid a repeat of this, where the promoted athletes in the event will receive their medals in a fed-ex bag rather than on a podium. Two, how shit is Liudmyla Blonska? If you're going to cheat, at least win the bloody gold medal. There's only one thing worse than a cheat, and that's a stupid, useless cheat. A round of applause, then, for Liudmyla Blonska, Official Cheating Cow.


Day 13's sport - interim report

China is a culture deeply entrenched in numerology and superstition. Most people now know about their love of the number 8, and perhaps their distaste for the number 4. They are based on the fact their words for these numbers sound much like important life events, such as health, wealth, death, crabs, hangnails, sex, etc. I can only assume that the Chinese word for the number thirteen sounds a lot like the Chinese word for Insanity. Because all the most outrageous sports are out in force now. None more so than the 10km open-water swimming.

'Swimming' is something of a misnomer here, because whilst a certain amount of aquatic self-propulsion does take place, the event is rather more complex than that. It seems to also involve elements of fighting, rape and murder as well. All wrapped up in the handy package of the sternest feat of endurance since the 40 days in the wilderness. This is an event so tough that, no matter what your parents or teachers warned, the competitors actually have to eat and drink during the race in order to stave off the effects of death. Just to add an extra air of lunacy to proceedings, this is completed floating on one's back, like a sea otter opening a clam.

Britain's David Davies led off and at one stage held a lead of seven metres. Funnily enough, by the end of the race - which takes just shy of two hours to complete - he was rather tired and being closed down by his rivals. Closed down, punched, pulled, bitten, wanked off, robbed, the whole gamut. All of the competitors were so tired that they were lurching from side to side in the water like drunkards at closing time, but Davies, in only his third open water marathon swim, was taking it harder than most. Taking a very deliberate look up to see the position of the finishing buoy was all the invitation his Dutch rival Maarten van der Weijden needed to burst into the lead. Davies crossed the line second, 1.5 seconds behind after 6 miles of madness. He was completely delirious, and was carried out of the water on a stretcher. The real Olympics starts NOW, I thought.

The result of the race came with a postscript. The gold medal winner, van der Weijden, is a cancer survivor, having beaten Leukaemia at the beginning of the decade. I think he can now add survival of the Olympic 10km Marathon Open-Water Swimming to his CV.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Day 11: Eruptions of nationalistic fervour


Today, Team GB became the most successful Olympic team from our immeasureably hip island in exactly 100 years. In 1908, at the Games of the 4th Olympiad in London, Britain won 56 gold medals, a target which is likely to elude even us this time round. However, at that Olympiad, there were a mere 22 competing nations, and the sports included Pipe Smoking, Chastising Domestic Servants, Wife Beating and Racism, none of which we could ever lose. In Beijing, Team GB have 203 other competitors, whilst Bear Bating and Gossip have been replaced by Athletics and Cycling.

Never fear, though. In those intervening 100 years, we have slowly but surely caught up with the rest at these high-fallutin' new disciplines. Now it is starting to look like we might even be able to make a fight of keeping our outrageous 3rd place in the overall medals table. At the Atlanta games in 1996, the British team blustered and flumped its way to a measly one gold medal with a combination of under-performing athletes and people who were just too old, too young or too rubbish. Twelve years on, it feels like a lot longer ago. A huge amount of the credit has to go to UK Athletics and the Lottery funding, a prime example to point out when it is - as it will be - needed that Britain can organise a piss-up in a brewery when the mood so takes it. We are a very small country, especially in terms of geographical area, so what we have managed to achieve is probably the outstanding story of the whole Beijing Olympics, along with Michael Phelps and the West Indian teams' insane production line of world class sprinters.

Our key victories today yet again came in the Velodrome. Our cycling team are now statistically the single greatest ever in the history of a single Olympic Games. Indeed, our dominance became such that the BBC's cycling commentator Hugh Porter started to display signs of a blasé confidence, thought to have been extinct in British sports broadcasting. It was not, however, ill-placed. Thankfully not, indeed, as the two gold medalists in question today were perhaps the most deserving of the lot. Both Chris Hoy (Men's 1 km) and Victoria Pendleton (Women's Keirin) had some or all of their favourite events removed from the Track Cycling schedule for Beijing's games. Hoy's medal in the Sprint was his third at this summer's Games, again a return for a British athlete not seen since the heady days of 1908. Meanwhile, Victoria Pendleton, the world's greatest female sprint cyclist, finally managed to add Olympic gold to her growing pile of other clanking bling. Pendleton had seen all but one of her events pared out of the schedule to make room for BMX, Topless Bingo and Monkey Bartering, so winning in the sprint was her only chance at the medal she missed out on in Athens. Despite this pressure, and the weight of the growing expectation on the team, I've never seen a gold medal look quite so certain from first to last. Nobody else stood a chance.

As if to rub the world's noses in it further, we even bagged two medals in the Bird's Nest stadium, including a gold for Christine Ohuruogu in the women's 400 metres. She paced herself perfectly to sweep past her wheezing rivals in the last 10 metres, thus becoming the highest profile Ohuruogu since the first series of Star Trek.

A word, though, for our rivals who have all fought so poorly and capitulated so readily. Ah, no, sod it. They'll all be beating us again soon enough. Eat our dust!

Today's sport

I joined an audience of 660,000 European football scouts in watching the first semi-final in the Men's Football. Nigeria gave Belgium a good hard licking, emerging as 4-1 victors to face Argentina in the final. The Olympic football being an under-23 contest, almost anyone who can tie their own shoelaces or walk and walk at the same time will soon be gracing one of the top European football leagues. On this evidence, this is unlikely to include any of the Belgian team, who now face Brazil for the bronze. However, a lot of the players on display here are already names familiar to European football supporters - a tribute to the ever-tighter tentacles of the top clubs' scouting networks - so what this match really taught me is just how good African football teams can be when they're just left to play football.

I also enjoyed the Women's 100m Hurdles final. The favourite, the USA's Lolo Jones, led up to the penultimate barrier before she clipped it with her lead leg and stumbled, allowing her teammate Dawn Harper through to take the gold. And, indeed, everyone else. A distraught Williams bungled through the tape 7th out of 8th, beating only the British competitor, Sarah Claxton, to the line. It was a faintly reassuring reminder of times past.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Day 10: Hellhound on my trail


I have an awful lot of stuff to say about Olympic happenings today, so this is likely to be a disordered brain dump. But try to bear with it, because Sport Is Important™. So, I've had a big poo and a really troublingly lengthy after-lunch nap (which meant I missed the end of the Women's Pole Vault final. Bugger. Bugger.) and I'm now ready for my marathon.

It's Day 10 at the Olympics, which means I refuse to watch Hazel Irvine's studio links without wearing x-ray specs. The big news from Beijing was China's face of the Games, Liu Xiang, pulling out of the 110 metres hurdles heats with an Achilles tendon injury. This, we are informed, has sent much of China into shock and mourning. A fact that I am willing to take with more than a pinch of salt, given the fact they said the same thing about British people when Princess Diana died. Nevertheless, it's a major blow for the hosts. The idea of the athletics as "the proper Olympics" is a fairly pervasive one, and Liu was their one big medal hope. Liu was the reigning Olympic champion at 110m hurdles as well as its World Champion and World Record holder, so it's a big loss - his medal was pretty well bolted on. It's odd the way sport works; that a country feels robbed and cheated of one gold medal even in spite of having already secured 35 in other disciplines.

Nevertheless, it happens. It happened yesterday here, but on a smaller scale and without Claire Balding sobbing at all: Paula Radcliffe's heroic failure gained higher billing in headlines round-ups than some successes for lower profile athletes. One such athlete who experienced this particular fate was Rebecca Romero. Rebecca Romero is my new sporting hero. Now, I know that I spend most of the time here taking the piss. But I'm quite serious on this point. What reached me from Romero is not her gold medal success, or the piece of history she made, but her reaction to it.

The British are a funny lot. We are just about willing to indulge tears of celebration and positively sustained by the tears of the gallant loser. But they have to be our winners and our losers. In athletes from other countries, commentators seem at best amused and at worst bewildered and uncomfortable. Cesar Cielo Finho is a Brazilian swimmer who won the 50 metres freestyle - swimmings version of the 100m sprint - last week. On the podium he sobbed his heart out. I found it very touching and, more importantly, totally human and totally relatable. The commentators, however, seemed at a loss. After Brazil's outstanding national anthem finished playing, they tittered their way through a few utterly misplaced platitudes about him having "his Gazza moment", and questioning just how embarrassed he would be in years to come when he looked back at footage of the moment. What utter rubbish, I thought. He'll look back and say that he was the Olympic champion and that he was very proud. What made this worse is that one of the commentary team had welled up watching the replay of Rebecca Adlington's second gold medal, with his commentary on it, in the studio. Double standards ahoy. The massive tit.

Rebecca Romero didn't cry - not, at least, until she was on the podium. But her celebration was so exceptional it reached clean out of the screen and grabbed me. THIS, this is what it means to be Olympic champion. This is the reason sport makes your hair stand on end. Romero was a silver medalist in Athens, a member of the Quadruple Sculls rowing team. Chasing something within her, a rage perhaps. Running against what she described afterwards yesterday as the demons, she changed to a completely different discipline - 3 km pursuit cycling - and rode into the history books as only the second woman in history to achieve two Olympic medals in different sports.

I love the pursuit cycling. For those who don't know, it's the one where competitors start on opposite sides of the arena and chase each other down. The one who finishes the distance closer to the other is the winner. It's very exciting, combining speed, drama and - with the chase aspect - moustache-twirling levels of movie melodrama. What Rebecca Romero offered was a cherry on the cake. As the cheers died down - the British fans who have filled the velodrome most likely all exhausted and/or hoarse after several days of near-perpetual cheering (not to mention the fact that in Romero's success was failure for the silver medalist, her Team GB fellow Wendy Houvenaghel) - a slight hush descends. Romero, slowing down from her run and still soaring round the track faster than most Virgin Trains, punched the air and screamed.

This was no girly exhortation. This was a roar from the depths of her being. You could hear her soul. It was a noise from the pure depths of hell. It made it obvious that sporting success isn't just winning a game, but a way to find your own humanity within yourself. I'm sure that if I ever achieved anything even remotely comparable, I would do exactly what she did. I had never heard of Rebecca Romero before yesterday. Now, in a strange way, I feel like I know her. If you're reading this blog in the UK, you will be able to see what I've been prattling on about here.

Today's sports

In a hectic day, I spent far too much time watching sport. At breakfast time, I watched the Women's Triathlon. Which was insane, insane I tell you. Any one of those disciplines would be more than sufficient to make me actually die, but these women were virtually push each other out of their way in the hurry to cycle 40 kilometres, having just been swimming for 20 minutes. The winner was Australia's Emma Snowsill, who was probably very tired at the end. Britain had two competitors in the race, one of whom - 18-year old Hollie Avil - had been struck down with the shits in the days leading up to the event and was forced to pull out of the race during the cycling element. Which is fair enough. I shat myself just watching it. Besides, she was knackered out, against a world class field and her stomach must have been boiling furiously.

At moments of equanimity such as this, I have to also congratulate Paula Radcliffe for her marathon performance yesterday. A lot of people I know, myself included, don't particularly like Radcliffe. It's hard to know why, but there you go. I do, however, respect her abilities and am fairly sure that being labelled a quitter in Athens must have been difficult to take. Why else would a woman with a broken leg run a marathon, just to prove something to herself?

Congratulations must also go, incidentally, to the commentator on the triathlon, Australian Greg Bennett. His commentary was measured and informative, and pleasingly free of any notable bias in spite of the fact that his fellow countrywoman was winning the race, a few positions ahead of Laura Bennett, his own actual real-life wife.

I also watched the Women's Gymnastics Asymmetric Bars final, featuring British world champion, the Nosferatu-me-do Beth Tweddle. I had hoped to do an in-depth report on it here, but I rapidly realised it was a battle I could not win. Whilst as a spectacle it was truly magnificent, as a sport it left me cold. The judges (yes, them again) seemed to be marking in an entirely arbitrary way that even some of the rival competitors seemed taken aback by. With me in the chair, I'd have given a joint-gold medal to seven of the eight competitors, with a silver for Dariya Zgoba of Ukraine. Because she was the only one who fell off. Now, that I can understand.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Day 9: Fatigue

Another remarkable day of sport in the 2008 Olympics. Sadly, your correspondent may have been somewhat waylaid by a night drinking mojitos. Sorry about that. Still, in some ways it gave me a product at least as meaningful as Paula Radcliffe: eight farts, 3 pisses and a big ol' crap upon returning home.

So, analysis of Rafael Nadal's gold medal performance will have to wait. As will any circular and impossible arguments regarding Michael Phelps - now with a record-breaking 8th gold medal and, I assume, the stomach muscles of a pensioner - and his position in the pantheon of sporting greats. I will, however, pause to reflect that even in spite of two of our more trumpeted medal hopes - Radcliffe and Kelly Sotherton - falling by the wayside today, a weekend's prolonged success on boats and on cycles has left Great Britain a scarcely believable third place overall in the medal table. It surely can't last, even with the bankers of more guaranteed medals tomorrow in the velodrome. Which is all the more reason to bask in it now.

By way of compensation for this pickled stream of semi-consciousness, I have prepared an illustrated guide to today's Olympic action. And here it is. Again, sorry about this.



Saturday, 16 August 2008

Day 8.2: Super Saturday point 2

Oh, to be British! Foreigners must be as sick as pigs! etc etc

As predicted by any number of wise owls, Britain had a fill yer boots sort of day at the Olympics, including 4 more gold medals. The UK team has now won as many golds in Beijing as... Michael Phelps. It all rather pales, of course, next to the really big story of the day, the 100 metres sprint final.

On a scrap of paper, I'd been writing down ideas for things to write here in case nothing on earth happened. One of them says "why does no-one break world records any more?". It's now pretty redundant, as you can barely move for new marks being set all over the place. Usain Bolt's new time for 100 metres - 9.69s - is the first time under 9.7s and doubly impressive considering he spent the last 5 metres of the race jumping up and down like an excited bunny. As spectacles go, it was unmissable.

It reminded me of something, but it may well be difficult to raise this issue without being taken the wrong way. However, I'll just spit it out: it reminded me of the 1988 Olympic final. 20 years ago, Ben Johnson went into the final as the most talked-about athlete in the world. He then became the first man to ever run under 9.8s, despite backing off towards the end. In a retrospective piece for the BBC, Jonathan Edwards said that, despite what happened after that, watching Ben Johnson that day remained the single most impressive thing he'd ever seen in sport. Whether or not this piece was recorded before or after the day he saw Sue Barker's tits, I do not know. Regardless, this dichotomy is something which I can relate to now. The world still feels the shockwaves from Ben Johnson: thanks to him my first reaction to Bolt's outstanding performance is flamboyant cynicism and a touch of emptiness. Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever seen in the world, and yet all I want him to do is wee on a stick.

Thanks for that, Ben, you fuck.

Due to the rigour of the measures in place following the aftermath of the Seoul games, I am confident that there is nothing suspect at all in Usain Bolt's brilliant success today. How could there be? As soon as you run under 10 seconds these days, every second piddle is straight into a test tube. So, in 20 years from now I will be able to look back to this race and this day, reflecting on Usain Bolt running 9.69 powered solely by chicken, spuds, Reggae-Reggae sauce and lager.

I just needed to quickly offer my congratulations to all the cheating bastards who went before, who have all spoilt my enjoyment - of what is a major milestone in the human world - somewhat.

Day 8.1: Super Saturday


It is, the BBC has informed me, Super Saturday. This is because Britain has chances of a massive glut of medals in the pool, in the sailing, at the rowing regatta and in the velodrome. Showing an even-handedness which gladdens the heart, they also included Michael Phelps' Spitzocaust attempt within that.

First up was Rebecca Adlington in the 800 metre freestyle swimming. No Briton has ever won two gold medals in the same Olympics, so history was for the taking. She did it too with some style, breaking the World Record and swimming her way into the British public's affections for at least a few more months yet. This much was very clear from the commentary, which became more and more familiar throughout the sixteen lengths. Starting as Ms. Adlington, as she broke clear she became Becky. Becks was not far off, then Adds, Admund, RA and Bea. Had the race been 850 metres, I'm sure that she would have finished the event like Prince, a symbol for a name. Still, she's done a fantastic job and has an enormous nose.

Also in the fabulously-named Water Cube, Michael Phelps equalled Mark Spitz's 1972 benchmark of seven golds in one games in the 100m butterfly, but rather less emphatically than for his previous six. Instead of blowing the field away and smashing the World Record, Phelps was embroiled in an epic fight with Serbia's Milorad Cavic. Cavic led all the way, up to and including the 99 metres and 99.8 centimetre mark. Phelps, who has obviously been very busy this week and as such has had no time to cut his fingernails, somehow touched first. I have watched this 3 times now, and I still can't see how his did it. I'll steer clear of saying anything else. Maybe he sloughed off a skin cell from his index finger at just the right time.

Seven gold medals in seven days, to go with the 1400 he won in Athens, Michael Phelps is now just one swim away from being BA Baracus. If he's not called Mick on American TV yet, I don't know what more they could possibly want him to do.

Today's sport

Well, naturally I'll be watching all the British medal attempts that I can. I'll be starting off with the rowing and sailing, which is like swimming for people who can't swim. But what I'm really looking forward to is the cycling, because it's very exciting stuff. I will report back on what bounced off my retinas and formed brain data later on. If, that is, I'm not completely carried away in a nationalistic frenzy whereby I start to earnestly believe that all foreigners are the scum of the earth. Of course.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Day 7.2: Shut up Sue

The athletics is viewed by many, in the words of my brother this week, as "the proper Olympics". It's what features on all the Olympic computer games, for one thing, as well as providing the most high-profile action. It also provides the most hardcore editorialising on the part of the BBC. I am much more willing to forgive them this in the Velodrome, where activities also commenced today, because British competitors there are actually, well, good.

I call this obsessive, unrealistic, televised pursuit of mediocre athletes the Colin Montgomerie effect. Those not in the know, or frighteningly, too young to recall, in the late 1990s the BBC would routinely ask - and, indeed make documentaries about - why Colin Montgomerie had never won a Major golf championship. They never stopped to think it might be because he lacked sufficient ability. Who needs ability when you're British, after all?

In the Women's SIX MILLION MILE steeplechase semi-finals, British athlete Helen Clitheroe set a personal best, in so doing beating the British record by a collosal 9 seconds. Sadly for her, she finished outside the top 4 in her heat, and, in an event which only had spots open for the three fastest non-top 4 finishers, her time was the 4th fastest. She was out. Not before, mind you, Brendan Foster had incurred several IRE PENALTIES. He started with the utterance, "people will forgive us for being a bit partisan", which you just know is going to precede some ludicrous, Kedgeree-and-Racism, Jolly-Good-Show, Take-Me-Back-To-Dear-Old-Blighty sentiment. "If there's any justice in the world, a woman who takes 9 seconds off the British national record would qualify for the Olympic final".

Bollocks.

If there's any justice, the person whose time isn't quick enough to qualify won't. She didn't, so justice be done. If she has a problem with this, run faster. If you can't run faster, then that's just the way it is. This whole "British Records Must Be Fast" mentality has irked me beyond belief. Britain is a small country, mostly taken up with its dense (in most meanings of the word) population. The bits not filled with dwellings are full of sheep. It's capacity for producing bullshit, however, is unsurpassed.

Just shut up and show me the sport. I'll judge whether it's good or not, it's fair or not, or if I care or not.

Day 7.1: Pretty pictures


It's Day 7 of the Olympics, which means we're all just in a holding pattern waiting for the athletics to start and Hazel Irvine has taken a restraining order out on me. After an exciting Day 6, I found little to inspire me in the programme for Day 7. This was, in part, due to the weather which manage to disrupt almost all outside events. Some sports did manage to find a break in the clouds, however, and I'm sure Roger Federer and the Williams sisters are all very glad of it, as all three were knocked out of the tennis as soon as the rain subsided.

It's days like day 7 which lead you to start looking at parts of the screen you wouldn't normally contemplate. Often in the direction of the Off button. However, if you time it right, before you get there you will see some of the Olympic graphics. These are very useful, as they tell you the names of the competitors, the score, the sport and, if applicable, the class. In the left hand side of this Blue Bar of Fact, you will also notice a little yellow picture. Every sport has one of these, a simple stylised stick figure representation of the sport in question.

Now, I don't know how long they've been doing this in international sports broadcasting. However, I've seen footage of the TV feeds of Olympic Games stretching right back to the 1960s this summer, and I can tell you they didn't always use them. Fox's, however, have been making the comestible version - the Sports Biscuit - for fifty years. As such, I can only assume that someone at the IOC has finally taken the heads up from this venerable biscuit. I have to say, the graphics are a welcome addition to the coverage, not least because of the old game you can also play with the sports biscuit - the "what the hell sport is that?" game. Of course, playing it with the TV graphics tends to spoil the game, what with the sport being written down next to it. My request to the TV directors: let's just have the pictures. No other details. It would be the best Olympics ever.

* The events depicted in the image at the top are as follows: (Top row (left to right)) Synchronised Fishing; Pairs Drowning; Swimming in snakes; Dressing to the left; Water Boxing; Sado-Masochism; Roadworks; (Second row) Weightlifting; Fly swatting; Eel poaching; Sex; Arm-wrestling; Boxing; Scaring the elderly; (Third row) Football; Close encounters; Bee chastisement; Freestyle farts; Abbatoir; 1500m Escaping Radiation Leak; Catholic Dressage; (Fourth row) Fencing; Slapstick; Volleyball; Saving Picnic from Ants; Wasp Revenge; Baking; Gay Sex; (Fifth row) Tennis; Epilepsy; Hoovering; Showing Off to Girls; Running; Fight with Gladiators to the Death; Helping Fat Relatives Out of Bed.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Day 6: Ping Pong!


It's Day 6 of the Olympics, so I'm busy writing erotic fan fictions featuring Hazel Irvine, Sue Barker and a visit to a honey factory. Relief comes in the form of televised coverage of sporting events! And yesterday did not disappoint me, as I enjoyed the Men's Team match between South Korea and Sweden in the Table Tennis. An Olympic sport which is also beloved of social workers and prison inmates is always a strong start, plus it is another activity which is very easy to understand and pick up when you are a spectator.

The table tennis had everything to keep me entertained. Firstly, the rules are straightforward, and even the format - a best-of-five rubber format with four singles matches and a doubles in the middle - is familiar to anyone who has seen the Davis or Fed Cups in Big Tennis. However, it's the little things which really enlivened yesterday's contest for me. For a start, the umpire was a heftily built bloke with big fuzzy hair, wearing a powder blue blazer, grey slacks and a white tie. He was, to all extents and purposes, Chubby Checker. I was delighted. The other umpire, in charge of calling the scores and mopping up sweat from the table with towels, marks the game progress with little score flip-cards. Like Blankety Blank. Marvellous.

The gameplay itself also had surprises in store. Having seen competitive table tennis before, I was ready for the bewildering array of sleight-of-hand services the players will try to bamboozle their opponents. I was even ready for the size and scale of the arena. But it's still a remarkable sight. During the most spirited rallies, the two athletes are standing at opposite sides of the room, hitting a ping pong ball towards a tiny blue rectangle somewhere in the middle. I imagine good eyesight is a requisite for top players. When viewed as tennis on a small scale, Table Tennis at the top level is an oddly confrontational sport. Penned in on all sides, the players are by far and away the bigest things in the game arena. The doubles looks not dissimilar to a fight in a pub car park. A peculiarity of the game of doubles in Table Tennis is that the competitors have to hit alternatively - hugely handy for the attribution of blame - so maybe a brawl isn't too far off after all.

This sport also offers the greatest solution ever devised to any sport where keeping a ball within a specified game area is significant to the outcome. I have written before at my dislike of the Hawkeye system in tennis, because it effectively makes the show courts slightly different arenas in terms of rules as well as scale to the smaller courts or lesser events. People arguing for goalline technology in football offer identical arguments: it is wrong to introduce new gadgets at the top level of a professional global game which will not be available elsewhere in the pyramid. All or none, in other words.

In Table Tennis, the answer is simple. Was the ball in? Well, did it hit the table?

For football, tennis and rugby, the writing is now on the wall. Hawkeye and Video Replays are hugely useful tools, but they should not be for the big boys only. Either make provisions for global availablity for everyone in the professional game, or start to play on a giant table. Did it cross the goal line? Yes, it fell off the table. Was the ball in? Yes, it hit the table. Was that a try? Yes, the man holding the ball just fell head-first off the table.

Today's other sport

Archery. I have enjoyed this sport immensely, too. All the pregnant drama of darts with none of the cholesterol problems. This morning, China made history in the women's singles by beating South Korea for the first time ever in Olympic competition. Yesterday's game, in an earlier knockout round, was totally spoilt for me by Eddie Butler commentating on a game featuring a British competitor which wasn't even being televised, whilst a completely different match took place in front of us. Not impressed, Eddie.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Day 5: The village people


It's day 5 of the Olympics, which means I've started to find Hazel Irvine oddly attractive. But no matter, because there's SPORT to be viewed. Yesterday, I mentioned the fact that I'd been watching the men's tennis, so now is as good a time as any to hold forth.

For a start, the tennis is - aside obviously from the weightlifting - the first sport I have actively sought out so far at the Beijing games. I really do like a bit of tennis. I've watched Wimbledon every year since the days of Ivan Lendl in shorts so short they gave him a wedgie. In recent times, I've had the man love on for Roger Federer. For me, he is the single finest sportsman in the world, not for his results but for his style - power, grace and breathtaking ability.

This year, I've noticed a change in Federer. His shoulders seem down, perhaps crushed under the weight of his record-breaking spell at number 1, perhaps with the looming spectre of the record 14 Grand Slam titles of Pete Sampras. In fact, BBC commentator Sam Smith probably hit the nail in the head during his second round match yesterday. Federer is spooked by the first man to come along and really be able to go toe-to-toe with him, Rafael Nadal. Nadal has already ended Roger's epic run on grass courts, plus deprived him three times at Roland Garros of the French Open title which would probably secure Federer's place in the annals. Next week, he will take his world ranking, meaning Federer will not be the top ranked player in the world for the first time in five years.

It was inevitable, of course. Every great sportsman will always encounter those two great enemies - time and the young player who they had been to the previous generation of stars. For Federer, though, it must be hard to take. He is still demonstrably superior to more or less everyone else on the tour, but Nadal is just brutal. Federer has spoken of his desire for an Olympic Gold for years, but now, in 2008, it's a matter of some urgency. He's now 27, meaning that he may not even still be playing when the games comes round again. Furthermore, in a season where 3 Grand Slam titles would have made him the Open era's most successful ever player, he has so far won none, beaten to the post by the young guns of Novac Djokovic and Nadal. He's just not accustomed to this sort of pressure, and it is fascinating to see how he handles it.

He makes what I consider to be some odd choices. Firstly, the Federer travelling entourage does not contain a permanent coach, a man to be able to be an extra pair of eyes, to point out things which the great man may not even have considered. Secondly, and more Beijing-specific, he's opted to not stay in the Olympic village. His reason for this is that the number of people who want pictures and autographs in there become a distraction to him. It's an argument which I find difficult to dismiss, as I find it perfectly plausible that Federer is so afflicted with fans and well-wishers wherever he goes.

However, I can't help but feel it's a shame, and worryingly, increasingly common amongst the Games' top professional sportsmen. Looking at this from the other angle, the semi-pro sportsman who has delightedly qualified to represent their country is naturally going to be disappointed that any chances to meet world class sports stars in the village has been deprived to them because of Ramada Jarvis. It seems to go against a bit of the Olympic spirit to me, and I was pleased to learn that Rafa Nadal is staying in the Olympic Village, reportedly starstruck. My fear is this: how long before the village just becomes a ghetto for the also-rans? Losing is an occupational hazard of the sportsman of whatever level. But losing to someone who helicopters their way in, speaks to no-one, wins and then buggers off is hardly in-keeping with the ideals of sportsmanship.

This said, no-one can accuse Federer of bad sportsmanship. In the last 5 years he has been an exemplary gracious winner, and all signs are that he is equally adept at being a gracious - if unwilling - loser. It will probably stand him in good stead. So far, Federer has been as imperious as expected against some low-ranked opposition, whilst Nadal blustered to a three-set win in his first match. Yesterday, however, Rafa absolutely blitzed Lleyton Hewitt 6-2, 6-1. I'll be surprised if Sunday's Olympic final isn't another installment of Federer and Nadal's summit duel. But as it stands, I'd expect Nadal to be the favourite. My hope is that Federer, if he loses out on a gold medal, doesn't lose out on enjoying the Olympic experience too.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Day 4.2: That's nearly an armful

In the annals of human history, it's perhaps the conspiratorial thinking which sets human kind apart as a really very special bunch. But even within this paradigm, there are some utterances which are better than others. Few I have ever encountered, however, have ever quite matched up to this one: the Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell, former world record holder, claims that he has been blood tested to such a degree that he will be weakened when he comes to compete.

This poses so very many questions. If we may put aside the obvious one about whether or not Asafa Powell has lost it, the major one of these must be to ask how much blood they are taking per test. I have always assumed that even a small vial of blood would easily be classed as a representative sample, and that the sort of amount which I have given in the past for testing would be fairly easily replenished by the human body. I can only therefore assume that the IOC hang athletes up like the Mussolini massacre and then bust up their corotid arteries. Milk maids are subsequently employed to carry the gently steaming buckets of blood across town to the testing centre, where the scientists bathe in it.

A BBC correspondent wrote a piece for their website's Olympic blog yesterday, bemoaning the standard of food available to spectators at the Games so far. My advice to them all would be to steer clear of the black pudding.

Today's sport, incidentally, was Judo. And no, I have absolutely no clue what's going on there either, sorry. I also watched some of the men's tennis, but more of that tomorrow.

Day 4.1: Jargon busting


It's breakfast time, so that means it's time for Synchronised Diving! I honestly feel that this should be a permanent thing. I'm indifferent to whether to participants would be the usual newsreaders and whatever the hell you call the ones on GMTV, or your actual divers. All I know is, it's exciting, splashy and just the right amount of bewildering for the bleary eyed.

I have been watching Synchro Diving now for three days, and I have a number of questions. Firstly: if one of the divers bangs their nut on the board, does the other one have to do it as well in order to maintain high synchronicity scores? Second: Why does the diving pool have nozzles attached to the the diving platform, constantly hosing fresh juices into the pool? Thirdly and most importantly - why do the divers all have showers after every dive? What have they filled that pool with? My suspicion: meths.

There is one thing which I feel is beyond question by this point, and that's the scoring. My deep dislike of sports decided by judges scores is likely to be a running theme in the coming weeks, but with the diving, even the commentary team seem to be a little bit confuddled as to exactly what the hell is going on with some of the marks. The judging panel, no doubt, will point out that we should expect no better from people from a country who have finished last in three finals. However, it is equally valid to suggest that the a large part of the reason for this is them all playing X-Factor.

I'm not, let's make this very clear, suggesting any impropriety. I think it would be nice, though, if the judges were to be more accessible to us plebs. In events where they are the kingmakers, a little bit of accountability and explanation would be most welcome. The synchro diving is one of those sports which works on two levels. You could enjoy it if you understood all of its vagaries, but it is equally easy to get rewarded just for watching it for its aesthetic properties. However, in the spirit of the Games - and until the judges come down from their ivory tower - I thought I'd do some research and try to unlock some of the secrets of the sport, to give us viewers a deeper and more satisfying level of enjoyment. So, I present my Olympic Synchronised Diving Jargon Buster.

Tuck
This is a dive completed whilst eating a Mars Bar. It is particularly popular amongst the high-board divers. The 3 metre competitors prefer a fun-size. Very tall competitors may favour the Mars out of a box of Celebrations, but it is worth bearing in mind that this will subtract significant difficulty marks from the dive.

Pike
This dive is notable for the presence of a large fish in the leotard. A dead example is most common, but the most adventurous competitors will go for the live pike.

Twist
The diver will enter the water thinking thoughts - usually of a sexual nature - so improper it would be possibly illegal to vocalise them.

Backward
Divers with an IQ of 55 or less

Reverse
The diver jumps from the pool back up onto the platform

And, for really high difficulty marks:

The Jethro
A dive completed whilst wearing a tweed cap, mutton chop sideburns and a pipe. A Single Jethro sees one competitor so attired, a Double Jethro has both. With a sheep under one arm.

Lutherian
Here the diver is expected to convert to Protestantism before impact with the water.

Panto horse
A dive which earns the maximum 4.0 for difficulty. Both divers are within a single pantomime horse costume. The really world-class divers will also be able to lift the tail and shoot an arc of diarrhoea before the splash.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Day 3: Come on, boys!

I don't want to put too much of a dampener on Great Britain's decent start to the 2008 Olympics, but there is one element to it which I can't help but find distasteful. The partisan commentary. Now, I know that it's not a particular sin to be proud of home success, but is all of the hysteria really necessary? Britain's two gold medals so far - Nicole Cooke in the road race cycling and Rebecca Adlington in the 200m Breaststroke - were greeted with a wall of sound, the Last Night of the Proms shot through a Daily Express prism of fervent national pride.

Perhaps I'm wrong, and just a curmudgeon. Perhaps it's the modern blanket media coverage, with replays and repeats at our digital digits, showing us the moment of success out of the context of the event's preceding action. But I honestly don't think so. Even when I am lucky enough to catch a Big British Bonanza live and am caught up in the moment, I still find some of the commentary way over the top. Youtube fanatics may be able to find all sorts of examples of this, but for my money, the best examples of this creeping phenomena come in the rowing, where Garry Herbert's leanings leave very little to the imagination. This patriotic excitement in the latter stages of a race undoubtably served him well during his time as a Cox, for which he won an Olympic medal himself in 1992. Steve Cram, on the other hand, has no such excuses for his unabashed screeching in Athens 4 years ago, imploring Kelly Holmes to keep...on....pushing. In a way, I wish there was. I for one look forward to the middle distance runner who commentates on the last lap of their own races with a growing fervour. Until such a point, a bit of journalistic balance surely wouldn't be too much to ask of people who are now professional journalists. And good ones, too. When the sainted races come along where Great Britain have no involvement, both the men I have mentioned are knowledgeable and measured.

Perhaps I'd not have the same problem with the braying national bias of some of the commentaries if there was a consistency in those races where British athletes were not a factor. "Here comes the German runner now, leading by a length into the last lap, although it's worth bearing in mind that he's a rapist, and he does goats". But here is the double-standard, because none of the worst offenders would ever dream of such a thing. Had Steve Cram's pleading commentary fallen on deaf ears in Athens, and Kelly Holmes had been pipped at the line in the 800 metres by Maria Mutola, he would have given a balanced and appreciative reflection of the winner's talents. The problem is, with his man in the pub commentary, the more consistent response would be to say, "oh shit, well, she must be on drugs, boo!"

Today's sport

Today's sporting choice for me was a mixed bag. What really sticks in the mind for me were doses of women's basketball, men's synchronised diving and men's tennis. Basketball is a sport whose appeal has always mystified me somewhat, simply because the game really boils down simply to the last few minutes, rendering the previous 46 a complete waste of time. Of course, the real waste of time is probably anyone other than the Americans bothering to compete. In the diving, 17-month old Tom Daley came 8th but looked delighted regardless. A word of praise for the commentary team on Andy Murray's two first round matches in the tennis, though. His surprise defeat in the singles to Lu of Taipei saw the commentators reflecting the excitement of an unexpected winner, rather than on someone who happened to be from the United Kingdom. Sadly, I don't know who they were. So, congratulations to Sam Smith and Morris Scroakes.

Day 2: Faces of the games


In days past, being the face of the Olympic Games was a matter of retrospection. Jesse Owens, Bob Beamon, Mark Spitz - they all went into their competitions free from huge expectation. Nowadays, the Face of the Games is decided long in advance, probably by a baying committee of tubby journalists. This poor soul's own personal goals become the hopes for all of humanity, meaning failure won't just be a personal disappointment. In recent years, these poor souls - Michael Johnson in 1996, Cathy Freeman in 2000 - have managed to come out of the pressure cooker having achieved their goals. Beijing's cause célèbre, US swimmer Michael Phelps, currently remains on target for his unprecedented 8 golds in 8 days. But my word, he must be knackered.

Swimming is perhaps the sport I have watched the most of at the Olympics in recent years. This is mainly because the BBC's coverage of it is particularly thorough, but also because it has that great quality for any Olympic sport - what the competitors are trying to achieve is completely obvious even to the uninitiated. Within this, however, I have to say that the racing in the pool interests me because it has an artificiality to it that its track counterpart does not have. Take, as an example, the 400m Individual Medley, the scene of Phelps' first gold of the games. Eight lengths of the pool, 2 each of butterfly, breaststroke, backstroke and freestyle. I think that this would translate brilliantly to the running track. It would also make the Olympics more accessible and understandable to any of us who ever competed in a school sports day. The 400m Individual Running Medley would be one lap of the track, the first 100 metres backwards, then similar increments of hopping and an egg and spoon element, ending with 100 metre freestyle.

'Freestyle' is also something of a misnomer, I find. Everyone swims the exact same way. There is more demonstrable variation in individual swimmer's breaststrokes than there is in the freestyle, and I think this is a shame. I'd be thoroughly supportive of any swimmer who decided to totally be-bop his freestyle element. Because the sad fact is, 'freestyle' is in fact the name given to a stroke which should really be called 'fastest style', to try and blind the watching public to the fact that the swimmers could actually be going a lot faster than they are, when they're flailing around with elbows flying. Nevertheless, for all this artificiality, I do love watching the Olympic swimming, and the ongoing Michael Phelps story gives the whole thing a welcome Hollywood aspect.

Today's sport

The sport I particularly enjoyed today was the women's Archery. Again, it is a sport which benefits from crystal clear objectives and scoring - compare, for instance, to Judo, which to the casual viewer looks like people in pyjamas re-enacting the fireplace scene from Women In Love. The final was fairly comfortable for the Korean team, who last didn't win this event at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. It would have been a Herculean feat for them to win that year, as they were boycotting the games. Their opponents yesterday were the China team, who delighted me. Firstly, they all pulled their bow strings back and made their noses and lips go like a wonky Elvis. Secondly, one of their number - as a result of this - had a black line up the middle of their face. I suspect that Guo Dan had falled victim to a Chinese Archery team prankster. The inky bowstring. The old classic.

The competition also put me in mind of the mooted inclusion of darts in future Olympiads. The skills required, it is beyond argument, are very similar to the ones I saw on display yesterday. The problem lies in something I did not see yesterday. A single morbidly obese competitor. I honestly think that the only thing holding darts back from serious Olympic consideration is the general appearance of the competitors, but this is something which could surely be sidestepped by having a boxing-style weigh-in. Or weightlifting-style weight categories. The sight of tattooed and bejewelled darts players in the Olympic village, scarfing down pies in a last-ditch attempt to get up to 179kg, it would virtually be a sport in itself.

A word about something hardly related to the Beijing Olympics at all

Yesterday saw the passing of one of your actual living legends, Isaac Hayes. Hayes will probably be remembered as the bloke who did the voice of Chef until he was subsumed by Scientologists. But he shouldn't be. Remember him as the first African American to win an Academy Award for a film score. Remember him as having written any number of the greatest soul songs of all time. Better yet, listen to his 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul - my all-time favourite soul record - and remember him like that. R.I.P., Isaac Hayes.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Day 1: Men's Gymnastics


It's probably the circular nature of it, but gymnastics is a sport which it's quite easy to lose vast chunks of time to. If not, it's difficult to explain why it had me so entranced. As a sport the results are ultimately decided by subjective scores as much as objective happenings, which I don't particularly hold in any esteem. The practitioners, however, are demonstrably outrageously toned physical specimens. So maybe it was a voyeuristic aspect. Perv ahoy.

The thing which pleases me the most about the activity when taken in isolation is that it is one of the few sports where, at the very top level, competition is not unlike gym in school P.E. lessons. The competitors are divided up into groups - by nation in this case, although discrimination laws probably forbid that in the school - and then they rotate around the apparatus. Some of the stuff they use looks familiar to the schoolboy, too, albeit slightly less moth eaten and spunk-hewn. Of course, what the Olympic competitors achieve when they are on it is fairly distinct from the efforts of pasty, pudgy pre-teens trying desperately to hold their farts in in front of girls.

The disciplines - pommel horse, parallel bars, rings, high bar and vault - all have their moments, but some are more spoiled as a spectacle by the minutiae of the rules. I can understand docking points for falling off the rings, or getting your foot wedged in the pommel horse handle, or having all your change fall out of your pocket on the high bar. But hearing about fractions being docked for not having hands in straight lines whilst on the leather tends to make me feel a touch out of my depth. At this point, I naturally retreated into liking the more spectacular things more. Someone can have a wonky spine on the high bar or lose a trailing toenail on the vault for the deduction of 0.3, but at the most basic level you will still see a hugely impressive spectacle. Not unlike watching monkeys in the zoo, come to think of it, which is probably a strong part of the appeal. I reckon a gibbon would clean up in high bar.

The BBC's Olympic coverage is bound to be a regular source of comment for me throughout the games, most of it gripey and nit-picking, so I want to say at this point that - come what may - I think their broadcasts are brilliant. With the advent of digital, it is easy to forget that for sheer depth and breadth, the BBC used to deliver even in the two-channel analogue past. It's a testimony to their ubiquity as THE sports broadcaster that I feel able to muster up the complacency to mock their commentary team. It was comprised of Matt Baker, the former Blue Peter presenter who, as a spotty teen, was a competition gymnast, plus some old bloke and some woman (I probably need a researcher). Baker took the general lead role, introducing people and sounding very delighted to be there, much like John Noakes at Crufts. His grounding in kids' TV, however, couldn't help but detract from it slightly for me. That said, he was a refreshing voice compared to Old Bloke, whose role seemed to be to point out the most piffling faults and explain why the fat judges were all so bitter. Some Woman, meanwhile, kept her powder dry by making predictions about what will happen shortly after it happened. "I thought that would happen", she said. Criticisms aside, they did what they were meant to do, which is to help someone who has no clue (HELLO!) understand a little bit of what was going on. And I learned an important new piece of sports jargon: "he knows how to spin horse".

Query: at the first Olympiads, was the pommel horse an actual horse?

I don't know who was winning or who won. Is that really what it's about unless you're wearing a chalky leotard?

Friday, 8 August 2008

Opening ceremonies


Opening ceremonies are, I think, the bane of the forgetful sports fan's life. You get so hyped up and excited by all the coverage, all the previews, all the press that you tune in to watch right from the beginning. And what you invariably see is folk dancing and people in suits remaindered from the set of It's A Knockout. If you're really lucky, you may even experience David Coleman or Barry Davies commentating on affairs. That's the final kick in the teeth, really.

I've been stung by opening ceremonies too many times to be tricked into watching this afternoon's extravaganza from Beijing. Besides, I can already imagine what it will be like. Fan dancing and dragons will be very much in evidence, all served up with a chaser of faintly unsettling fanaticism. I will, however, break this self-imposed exile if at any point I hear rumours about athletes requiring nebulisers thanks to a big smog cloud. But smog can wait for another day.

Because I'm happy to reveal that I have been bin diving outside Boris Johnson's barbers, and am able to exclusively reveal the itinerary for the London 2012 opening ceremony. Remember where you read this first, folks.

6:59 p.m. The Dance of the Construction Workers. Men in suits with 14 laminate security badges chase the last of the builders out of the stadium, where they were hurriedly trying to secure the last bit of roof. The builders are later seen handing out spanners and plastic seats to the spectators.

7:02 p.m. Cockney knees-up. A one hour celebration of local culture and colour, led by Chas and Dave. A troupe of dancers, all dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens with pugs under their arm, do the Lambeth Walk round the running track. From 7:30 p.m. the theme will undergo a subtle shift, and start to celebrate diversity and the Olympic ideal - but still within the framework of a knees-up. To this end, traditional dances from all over the globe will be on show, but their practitioners will all be dressed as Pearly Kings and Queens.

8:00 p.m. The Olympic Torch enters the stadium, carried by Linford Christie who will be pretending to have Parkinson's. To light the stadium beacon, Sally Gunnell will fling it.

8:10 p.m. The speeches. The Head of the IOC declares the games officially open. The Queen is later seen hoofing him in the pods for being so presumptuous.

8:15 p.m. Riot.

8:25 p.m. A live celebrity The Weakest Link takes place in the infield, with the cast of EastEnders and Noel Edmonds if he's not busy.

9:30 p.m. Curfew.

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