And the medal goes to Anthony Lane for his mammoth and brilliant diary of the Olympic fortnight in the New Yorker (week 1 and week 2). Over 10 pages (or 19, in case it reaches you as a Word document), Lane records how he watched everything from athletics to shot put, does some joyous China-bashing and even sneaks in a cheer or two for Indian joie de vivre (a.k.a anarchic chaos). Favourite bits given below but please, take the time to read the pieces. You will be a gigglier person for it.

“Phelps stepped onto the winner’s podium, flanked by his compatriot Ryan Lochte, who had taken the bronze. (It’s the old Ben Jonson problem: you’re a fine playwright, and at any other time you’d be the best, but by lousy luck you happen to overlap with Shakespeare, who takes gold in every medley in town.)”

“Accidents will happen, but, as a rule, if you’re going to screw up the national anthem of another country, especially a major trading partner, try not to do so when the President of that country is in the audience. George W. Bush was indeed in the Aquatics Center, standing at attention, and, even across ten lanes of water, I could tell that I was looking at a confused man. … The crisis passed. The President sat down. The semifinals of the women’s hundred-metre butterfly got under way. As for the Assistant Button-Pressing Technical Manager for National Anthem Digital Recording Systems (Aquatic Branch), I don’t know the poor fellow’s name, but his extended family has just been rehoused inside a hydroelectric dam.”

“…Yao Ming, whose status in China is roughly equivalent to that of Simba at the end of The Lion King, …”

“…indeed, from a professional point of view, to be felt up and patted down with such eager regularity has given me the first, helpful hint as to what life was like for Jean Harlow.”

“It was the same at Beijing Airport: the first thing I saw on arrival was a sniffer dog, but instead of some lunging German shepherd, with streaks of Baskerville-style foam along its jaws, there was a beagle. Now, beagles have been sniffing around U.S. airports for years, but this one was chasing a rubber ball. … somewhere in the seven years since Beijing won the Olympic bid, was a committee dedicated solely to canine propaganda. As long as one mutt-fancier from the tenderhearted West caught sight of the romping beagle and exclaimed to her husband, “Oh, look at little Snu Pi! See, they don’t eat them, they play with them!,” the committee’s job was done.”

“On every seat was a sack of goodies, and we were duly taught to rattle our drums, wave our Chinese flags, shake our funky light sticks, and finally, at the avian highlight of the ceremony, “imitate the movement of the doves with your hands.” Aside from the risk of developing repetitive wing injury, this was all too peaceful for me, and I felt a sudden, heretical yearning for the Paris Olympics of 1900, when the shooting competition used live pigeons.”

“One townful of men and women would race on, swarm into a shape, and race off, to be replaced by the next; if, deep below the spectacle, there was an unspoken suggestion that it would be an extremely bad idea to go to war against this nation, it never rose to the surface, although one aerial travelling shot of fireworks exploding in sequence along the street leading up to the stadium, displayed for us on screens inside, was a ringer for bombing-run footage from the Vietnam War.”

“We watch them both and ask ourselves, what kind of society is it that can afford to make patterns out of its people? India is hugely populous, too, but a Delhi opening ceremony would be a more rambunctious affair. Nobody will ever surpass the mathematical majesty of that night in Beijing, and, in retrospect, that may be a good thing.”

“You can imagine the rising panic in his [Lord Sebastian Coe who is heading up the London Olympics committee] voice: ‘They had two thousand and eight drummers, all lit up. Yes, two thousand and eight. And what have we got so far? Elton John on a trampoline.'”

“A new academic discipline suggested itself: acoustipolitics, founded on the statistical correlation between the size of a cheer and the current state of relations between any given nation and its host. Thus, the Chinese roar for Pakistan far outstripped its muted reception of India, echoing a preference that harks back to the Cold War. The American team was greeted with an indecipherable blizzard of white noise. The flag-bearer for Guam was lauded wholly, and deservedly, for being enormous; most of the female gymnasts could get a good night’s sleep inside one of his shoes. A storm of applause even met Vladimir Putin as he rose to wave at his compatriots. He wore the polite smile of a man who knew—as the crowd did not yet know—that he had just dispatched his armored divisions to quell a vexatious neighbor.”

“I watched the cyclists pass through Tiananmen Square, near the start of their road race, and none of them seemed in danger of expiring.”

“As for Eva Klobukowska, the Polish sprinter who won two medals at Tokyo, in 1964, and became the first athlete to fail a sex test, I wouldn’t have believed it were it not for the photograph supplied by Wallechinsky, which confirms that the lady in question resembled Harry Dean Stanton after an evening of rye and Lucky Strikes.”

“I could make out little of the men’s shot put on Friday night, for instance, not because it was half a stadium away but because, even through binoculars, it appeared to be an international convention of bartenders, staged inside a cloud of talcum powder.”

“The best thing about the shot put was the cars. After the shot landed, and the distance had been measured, the precious sphere would be retrieved by an official and placed in the cockpit of an automobile: two feet long, bright red, with a tail fin—in short, the idealized vehicle that I drew during chemistry lessons when I was nine years old. Now it exists, for real, and there are two Chinese fellows with the best job in the world, who get to steer it back to the shot-putting circle by remote control. … One question, though, will linger after the Games are done. The red supercars are equipped with windshields, but why? Who needs to see out? Are there tiny drivers tucked in there, bred specially for the event?”

“The other mystery weapon in [Jay] Lyon’s quiver [he’s an archer] was Phil Towle, a performance coach back in the States, whose online messages had been an inspiration. “He’s also been a psychologist for Metallica,” Ryan said, as if to justify the gentleman. I had to steady myself against a passing volunteer. Metallica has a psychologist? What, exactly, is it repressing in its sylvan melodies?”

“The fact is that the Olympic Games could happen anywhere. … I could have been in Melbourne, or Toronto, where at least the food would have been better—where the Chinese food would have been better.”

“The overdog of the hundred-and-ten-metre hurdles, Liu Xiang, limped off before he had even begun, a disaster only slightly less traumatic for his country—not to mention for Visa, Coca-Cola, and Nike—than the loss of India was for the British Empire.”

“… if you were a horse this year, would you really want to fly to Beijing, knowing that at any moment a synchronized swimmer might steal your soft cartilage and use it as hair gel?”

“I thought of the sign I had seen on the first full day of the Games, in the Forbidden City, as I headed back from the cycling. “Hall of Earthly Tranquillity,” it read, and then, at the bottom, in smaller letters, “Made Possible by the American Express Company.” One world. One dream.”

The silver medal goes to Matthew Syed, former ping pong player, and writer of the genius article “Sex and the Olympics city” which answers in detail the question that we have all pondered – “I am often asked if the Olympic village – the vast restaurant and housing conglomeration that hosts the world’s top athletes for the duration of the Games – is the sex-fest it is cracked up to be. My answer is always the same: too right it is”

3 thoughts on “Olympic Gold

  1. “You can imagine the rising panic in his [Lord Sebastian Coe who is heading up the London Olympics committee] voice: ‘They had two thousand and eight drummers, all lit up. Yes, two thousand and eight. And what have we got so far? Elton John on a trampoline.’”

    i knew it, i knew it!!!!!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s