NEXT Thursday will mark the 50-day countdown to the London Olympics. Expect much hoo-ha, huzzahs and high hopes of the final tickets actually being sold.
Personally, I am so excited about it all that I could lace up my trainers and run along Gullane sands in poorly executed tribute to Chariots of Fire – if I could find them.
There was a time when I used to be an athlete of sorts, running the 100 and 200 metres for Edinburgh Woollen Mill. Training mostly consisted of charging up and down the stairs in between spectator seats at Meadowbank Stadium until you threw up, or running up and down a steep hill near the Astroturf football pitches until you threw up. It was at these moments I was grateful for the raw egg and milk concoction my mother made me drink rather than anything heavier before I left the house.
While I was never particularly fast, I loved it. Especially the race meets, where the stress of finding enough safety pins to affix the number to your vest was only matched by the tension of actually having to get on your marks in blocks, your nose so close to the pink rubber track that you could smell the years of sweat and toil which had been pounded into it.
All of it made me feel part of some bigger whole, a world where athletic endeavour was a wonderful thing, even if you didn’t win. Which happened a lot.
That is why every two years when the Olympics and Commonwealth Games come round you’ll find me firmly ensconced on the sofa watching those who can achieve speeds my body was never meant to and glorying in their abilities.
Witnessing the fastest men and women on earth compete against each other, to see athletes who can throw stuff, jump things and use poles in a way Robin Hood’s pal Little John could only dream of . . . I’m there, glued to every minute of the sports fest on TV. Even the weightlifting with all its bulging sinews, shaky-leg syndrome and heaving of barbells will get a look in. In fact, just thinking of the array of sporting prowess heading our way leaves me as breathless as running for a bus.
Yet I appear to be in a minority. There seems to be a deep-seated cynicism in many people about this Olympics because it’s happening in London. Admittedly, I wasn’t too delighted at the idea of the five Olympic rings swinging from Edinburgh Castle’s ramparts on purely historical conservation grounds, and thankfully it isn’t happening. But there’s a definite feeling abroad that this is an English Olympics which we’re all paying for, but which will result in little or no benefit to anyone outwith the south-east of England.
I am not sure of the truth of that argument. The Olympic torch will soon be carried through the streets of Edinburgh and the Lothians, a moment which is supposed to bring the nation together in support for this great event. My son’s school will be marching behind it when it comes to our town, and the children are extremely excited at the prospect of seeing it.
The Olympics has become part of the school’s curriculum, it will be the theme of this year’s sports day, nutritionists and sports people have been into classrooms to talk to children about diet and health and fitness. The kids are even compiling biographies of their favourite athletes.
Such things, I’m sure, are happening at schools everywhere. But without the event taking place in Britain, none of it would be happening and the hope, of course, is that it engenders in them an interest in sport and fitness for the rest of their lives. That is a real legacy.
Of course, the other problem with the Olympics is the commerciality of the whole thing, the sponsors, the price of anything branded with the logo and the spectre of drug use by athletes.
I know it’s old-fashioned and sentimental, but I long for the days of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who ran for the glory of winning, and of God, who wanted to prove how fast men could go as a way of ending religious prejudice as well as cocking a snook at British snobbery.
They were men who had no sponsorship. Liddell had no real training except running around Edinburgh and Arthur’s Seat. When Abrahams paid for a professional coach, it was a scandal in a strictly amateur sport.
And when it transpired that one of Liddell’s 100m heats at the 1924 Paris Olympics was to be held on a Sunday and he refused to put king and country before his religious beliefs despite immense pressure, it made headline news around the world. For him, the Sabbath was a day of rest and he would not run, even though he believed it was God who had made him fast.
Of course, he went on to win gold in the 400m instead, but can you imagine any modern-day athlete putting a personal belief or conviction before a Nike or Adidas sponsorship? Sadly, no.
But despite the McDonald’s sponsorship, despite the weird mascots and despite the London-centric nature of it all, this is the Olympics. It’s when world records are broken along with the hopes and dreams of the defeated. It’s when physical greatness is achieved, medals are won and names go down in the annals of sporting legend.
It is bloody brilliant. I just wish I had a ticket.