The Rio Olympics kicked off in spectacular style on Friday evening, with a (comparatively) low-budget opening ceremony, followed by the first raft of medals won and world records broken over the weekend. Team GB picked up its first gold in the early hours of Monday morning, and Olympics fever is once again, four years on from London 2012, taking hold.
As a fan of lots of different sports, the Games never fail to suck me in. But it’s often the lesser-known, more obscure events, which end up grabbing my attention most.
Never in my life have I sat down on a Sunday evening to watch a fencing competition, but on Sunday I did just that, as British competitor Richard Kruse bravely fell to a narrow defeat in his semi-final match.
And it got me thinking that there’s something intrinsic about the Olympics brand that gives credibility to these sports. If the World Fencing Championships had been broadcast on BBC2 on Sunday, would I have watched that? Nope. But stick an Olympics logo on it and suddenly I’m hooked.
Part of the reason for that, is that the Olympics brand transcends sport. Aside from the wrangling over voting measures for deciding host nations, under-performing legacy policies and doping scandals, the Olympics has become a watchword for progress.
“Each Olympics is a retelling of the same narrative: ordinary people achieving greatness before a watching world. The Games are a showcase for human progress. Every four years, our species becomes more perfect. In 1984 the Swiss marathon runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess tottered over the finish line crippled by heat exhaustion; nowadays hipsters wearing Spider-Man suits run double marathons for charity. Each new world record is humanity applauding itself. The Olympic motto sums it up: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, or “swifter, higher, stronger”.” Simon Kuper, FINANCIAL TIMES
The IOC’s decision last week to give surfing, skateboarding, karate, softball and climbing Olympic status for the Tokyo 2020 Games, means a whole new audience is likely to be exposed to these sports, perhaps for the first time. They’ll witness the drama, the tears, the joy and will likely get wrapped up in the excitement themselves.
Yet whilst the announcement has been widely applauded by most, some within the sports have suggested freestyle activities such as skateboarding and surfing don’t belong in the Olympics. As described in Sidewalk recently, this has long been a thorny issue within skateboarding and will continue to be so, with an immediate response from one side petitioning against IOC President (and one-time Olympic Champion fencer) Thomas Bach‘s decision.
Bach’s announcement added yet more weight to the long understood reality surrounding the potential for Olympic acceptance of skateboarding, namely that ‘the Olympics needs skateboarding more than skateboarding needs the Olympics‘.
“We want to take sport to the youth. With the many options that young people have, we cannot expect any more that they will come automatically to us. We have to go to them.”
IOC president Thomas Bach.
James Renhard, writing on Mpora however, says the purists shouldn’t be concerned:
“The inclusion of skateboarding and surfing into the Tokyo Olympics will inevitably bring these activities to the attention of a much greater audience. And yes, this will mean a whole new bunch of kooks trying their hand at them, getting things wrong, thinking of them as sports, and trying to fit in for ten minutes. But so what? We were all kooks once. Hell, they may not even know what a kook is. That won’t stop the purists from enjoying surfing and skateboarding in the way they choose it.”
In a way, every four years we allow ourselves as spectators to be more open-minded about sport – any sport – and the reward is that we’re exposed to new, exciting, edge-of-the-seat drama. Perhaps the real lesson is that we should all be a little more open-minded more often.