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James O'Brien's Blog

London Calling

Friday, July 27th

This evening, the Games of the XXX Olympiad begin in Stratford, east London, and the world officially embarks on a paroxysm of passion about things like field hockey and Canadian style kayaking. All of which may sound a touch cynical, but which is, in fact, a tribute to the enormous allure of the Olympic Games.

I'm fairly sure that, were you to make a trip to the world kayaking championships, you could pretty much show up at the door (or gate or sluice or whatever the barrier may be at the World Kayaking Champs), pay your five bucks and in you go. Try that tactic in London and, just as certain, you'll be shown the exit with all due ceremony. My point is to illustrate the degree to which the Olympic Games transcend customary notions of competitive sport.

The aforementioned sports - and so many more - can be observed at levels comparable to, or above, the Olympic Games every year or two at their respective world championships. And while they all attract passionate audiences - yes, even field hockey players are capable of passion - no way do those tournaments ever evoke the 
unbridled passion that heaves to life at the culmination of each Olympiad. (An Olympiad, for those unaware, being the four year period between each Games).

At last year's World Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, the stadium was only filled on the last evening of the week-long event. Crowds at morning sessions were downright sparse. In contrast, when the Olympic Games were held in Seoul in 1988, every track and field session, morning and evening, was packed to capacity. One early morning, watching the qualifying rounds of the triple jump, I recall USA Today's Dick Patrick pondering the capacity crowd and commenting, "They think they're watching finals." The crowd may have been uninformed, but they were passionate. These were, after all, the Olympic Games.

Dick's observance touched on the essential difference between the Olympic Games and a major championship in whatever the sport may be. At the championship, the crowd are fans; they know, they understand what they are looking at. At the Games, spectators are participants. They want to be there - anywhere - so that they can be part of it, part of the Olympic family. Really, it matters little if the sport in question features Usain Bolt in the 100m final or the Bolt equivalent in men's archery. (I'm fairly confident that the majority of those attending archery in London will not be able  to name any archer whose first name is not Robin. Come to think of it, I bet 
many in the fencing crowd won't be able to name a fencer who's name isn't Zorro. And in equestrianism, a horse not named Mr Ed.... I digress).

Returning to the point, the Olympic Games are the phenomenon that they are for the simple reason that they are inclusionary. Every member nation of the International Olympic Committee is entitled to send one participant, regardless of standard, and there are more member nations than there are of the United Nations. Contrary to the recent comment by a member of the British officialdom that "These Games are not about taking part; they're about winning," these Games are, in fact, about taking part. The athletes, the spectators, the officials, the media, the sponsors, the legions of volunteers - they all take part, and in a way that happens at no other event, sporting or otherwise. If you‚re looking for the kernel that is the heart of the Olympic Games, this is it. And, if you're looking for corroborating evidence, watch this evening's Opening Ceremony and witness the all-enveloping warmth that pervades the stadium and the entire city of London. And if, at some point, you feel like breaking into a chorus of "We Are the World," well, that's OK, too. You could hardly be blamed.

As for me, I won't be in the stadium (no ticket), but I will be in a hostelry not too far removed with a couple of other jaundiced journos. And when the pageantry reaches its crescendo, I know that those grumpy old blokes will have a tear in their eyes and a lump in their throats, just the same as everybody else. Of course, they'll deny it; but these are the Olympic Games and that is their effect.

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