Olympics, Paralympics, and the Underdog


Wembley Stadium, 9th August 2012

The women’s football final was played out in front of a record crowd for a women’s game at Wembley Stadium, surrounded by an atmosphere totally unlike those at regular Premier League or International matches. Women and children and grandparents and live football newcomers sat in a happy mix, enjoying the good natured chatter before the game. With neither team a ‘home’ team, and with the crowd so determined to enjoy themselves for the sake of the Olympics, rather than some vicious tribal allegiance, the buzz during the game itself was interspersed with friendly chatter, the chants of children and cheerfully indulged Mexican waves.

Until, that is, Japan scored. Two American goals (both from Carli Lloyd) had already passed with not much more than a murmur of interest and some polite applause. When Yuki Ogimi hammered one into the net for Japan, the stadium erupted. The stands shook beneath us and the sky itself seemed to wobble under the weight of the cheering and screaming. We gazed at each other in some surprise. This was not the reaction we had expected.

Of course, our surprise was unfounded and unfair. Why shouldn’t the Olympic women’s final provoke as much clamour as any major men’s event? Aside from a certain (and unavoidable) lack of power from the players, the skill was as high as the equivalent men’s match between the two teams. The players cared deeply about fighting for that gold and the fans (albeit somewhat temporary ones) cared just as deeply about who won as they did about any other game. It was not a tribal atmosphere, but the celebration of the Japanese goal was as terrifying as any war-cry.

There was one other moment which united the entire crowd in a common cause. I refer, of course, to the booing of Sepp Blatter, Fifa president and all-round idiot. Some members of the crowd may have been booing because of his comments about the improvement of women’s football through the footballers showing off more of their legs. Others were probably protesting at the horrifically corrupt nature of the recent World Cup allocations. Yet more were certainly frustrated about his continued resistance to goal-line technology; a stance which robbed Frank Lampard of a potentially match changing goal against Germany two years ago. Whatever the reason, it was the loudest noise of the night, and went on for many minutes. The decision to have him present the gold medal was one of LOCOG’s few mistakes.

The Olympic Park, 5th September 2012

If London 2012 has no other effect than to raise the profile of paralympic sport a hundred-fold, then it will have done its job. Suddenly, sports and players who had been very much on the periphery of the public consciousness jumped to the foreground and, what is most important, stayed there. Jonnie Peacock, Sarah Storey, David ‘Weirwolf’ Weir and Ellie Simmonds will all be remembered not for their disabilities, but for their undeniable sporting talent. So will others from other nations: the unbeatable Esther Vergeer, the unparalleled Oscar Pistorius, the solid gold Jacqueline Freney.

So too have new sports gained popularity and exposure. Goalball is a tense and thrilling sport where three blind players try to hurl a heavy, bell-filled ball into a goal defended by three further blind players. If it sounds a little dull, then don’t be put off by my somewhat leaden description. The crowd has to remain utterly silent to allow the players to hear the ball, and this means everyone in the crowd is leaning in slightly, drawn towards the action.

Muderball (marketed as wheelchair rugby-a more palatable but not terribly accurate name) is a sport which had people clamouring to get in. Admittedly, the enormous line to enter the arena and the sold out crowd may have been entirely as a result of people intrigued by the name, but once there, they soon found a sport buzzing with energy and aggression. Actually, that’s unfair. The sport doesn’t buzz but rather sparks and flares like a power station exploding after a particularly violent lightning strike. Aside from getting the ball over the opponent’s line, the prime objective is to smash anyone on the other team high into the air and then hard into the floor. With a wheelchair that looks like something out of Mad Max. It’s great fun. Go watch it.

Seven a side football for cerebral palsy sufferers sounds a bit like a hand-out. Fortunately, that’s just rubbish. The tackling is far more robust than anything in the Premier League and the players don’t spend any time rolling about on the floor in ‘pain’ (except for one particularly flouncy Dutch player), they just dust themselves down and hop back to their feet. The goalkeeping is sharp and supremely swift, as the ‘keepers have to react to shots from players who are allowed to stand in an offside position. And the shooting is as good as anything you will see anywhere else in the world at any level. Not many back-heel volleys are scored in world football, but Iljas Visker managed one for Holland against Argentina, perfect as you like.

Which is just how one would have to describe London 2012. From Jess Ennis to Usain Bolt, Sarah Storey to Oscar Pistorius, the dominance of the Chinese to the pluckiness of countless tiny countries, these Olympics and Paralympics have been a massive success. London has proved an admirable host, combining flair and friendliness in a heady cocktail that has culminated in one of the greatest shows the world has ever seen. When will any of us next get a chance to watch a Briton challenge for gold in the Olympics in Britain? Probably never, so it’s a damn good thing we did so well at it this time.


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