The fourth most boring thing about the Winter Olympics is that people keep saying that they don’t really understand the sports. Of course they don’t; they are completely incomprehensible. They are not part of our culture; we shouldn’t expect to understand them. It’s like reading the Bhagavad Gita and expecting it to be like Lucky Jim.
The point is to revel in the incomprehensibility, the exoticism, the fact that what seems like nonsense is to others the breath of life. Take speed-skating, perhaps the most boring sport of them all: two people dressed in condoms, apparently racing each other on a pair of knife-blades, but they’re not actually racing at all, they just happen to be on the ice at the same time. These people have dedicated their entire lives to condom-wearing and knife-sliding; this is the most important moment in their entire existence, and somewhere in the world probably Holland – there are people praying for them.
This is terribly interesting, if dull. This is sport we can watch without the burden of patriotism, partisanship, or comprehension. We can sit back, aloof, paring our fingernails, watching the trials and the follies and the triumphs of humankind, savouring a moment of quiet grace or a second or two of muted drama before pouring another drink.
This is the grown-up way to look at sport: we don’t care who wins, we know in our hearts that it is all extremely silly, and that it doesn’t matter a jot who slithers faster or more artistically than some other foreigner.
This is sport without character, sport without narrative, sport without drama. Billy Liar fantasises his ideal parents, with a mother called Simone who says things like, `How dreary, Billy’s pissed again.’ The Winter Olympics are the same sort of thing: how dreary, someone’s broken a world record; how dull, some impossible upset has taken place in the skiing; how frightfully enervating, there’s a major rumpus at the skating. In many ways, that is the ideal way to look at sport: remote, tolerant, a smile of faint amusement occasionally flickering across our faces – Lord, what fools these mortals be! I think I’ll have another whisky.
Copyright Spectator Feb 16, 2002
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