The Winter Olympics, which begin in Beijing today – the first day of spring in the Chinese lunar calendar – are usually more muted than the summer games. Even so, the contrast with 2008 is striking. Ninety-one nations are competing, of which fifteen are joining the US in a diplomatic boycott (or are not sending officials for unspecified reasons). Athletes are corralled in an Olympic bubble and ferried around in shuttle buses; Beijing’s residents have been instructed not to come to their aid in the event of a crash. Domestic ticket sales have been cancelled and the torch ceremony is an abbreviated three-day jog through Beijing. The measures are designed to achieve ‘zero-spread’ of Covid, but seem symbolic of the tightened, less outward-facing nation that China has become.
Alexander Lukashenko’s media outlets aren’t happy with Krystsyna Tsimanouskaya. The least insulting thing they’ve so far said about the Belarusian athlete’s sudden exit from the Tokyo Olympics is that it was precipitated by ‘her emotional and psychological state’. The main TV channel ridiculed her ‘failure’ to qualify for the 100 metres, and called her decision to seek refuge in Poland instead of returning home a ‘cheap stunt’ and a ‘disgusting act’.
In my last year at university, I got the name of a European basketball agent who could help me land a job after graduation. He gave me a list of Americans already playing overseas. I called one of them and asked him what it was like playing in Europe. His answer reminded me of John Travolta’s line from Pulp Fiction, about ‘the little differences’. ‘They’ve got the skills and everything,’ he said. ‘But they don’t have that attitude, do you know what I mean? That edge …’
It was just before three o’clock on Sunday morning in Tunisia when the 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won a gold medal in the 400 metre freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. But it seemed as if the whole of Tunisia had stayed up to watch. Videos of his coach’s celebration dance and his cheering family went viral. Hafnaoui wasn’t expected to win. He had barely qualified for the race and was competing in an outside lane, which may put swimmers at a slight physical disadvantage (from the waves splashing off the wall) as well as a psychological one. He also comes from a country of empty swimming pools.
Since I wrote about Zika in February, genome sequencing has shown that the virus has three lineages: West African, East African and Asian. Analysis of a 1966 Malaysian strain and a 1968 Nigerian one point to an Asian origin for the Brazilian viruses; it is likely that Zika has been circulating in Brazil since 2013. The virus has been evolving in expected ways (its RNA genome has a high mutation rate); no change that could account for an enhanced ability to damage the brain has yet been found. None of these findings has hit the headlines.
Among the alleged thirty billion dollars’ worth of inflated contracts, self-dealing, kick-backs, crooked tenders and orgiastic waste that have made the Sochi Olympics cost more than all previous winter games put together, what stands out is the sheer brazenness of the whole thing. ‘The Sochi Olympics reveal the dark heart of Putin’s Russia,’ Panorama concluded on 27 January. But nobody is really bothering to hide it. The Kremlin knows it doesn’t matter how much is stolen or siphoned away: Gazprom will still control energy in Europe, Berlin will still appease Putin, Brussels will still roll over, London will still yearn for oligarchs’ money.
The Olympic Games can have a bad reputation. They are often defended as nationally unifying by deeply suspect people whose idea of what unifies is equally suspect. But it is also the case that many who apparently held a dim view of the Games turn out to have been pretty avid watchers. As Mass-Observation noted of George VI’s coronation, even those most determined to ignore it found themselves sucked in.
There are people, the Independent’s Steve Richards among them, who while deploring individual fatuous remarks will yet proclaim serious admiration for the mayor of London. Can such indulgence survive his call, amid the froth of Olympic rapture, for 'the kind of regime' he 'used to enjoy, compulsory two hours' sport every day'? My recollection of PE at school is of being shouted at and bullied by men in tracksuits – I preferred algebra – and we had only an hour and a half a week.
Week two of the Olympics, and British wins in boats, the velodrome and the Olympic stadium offer a feel-good moment. For some of ‘us’, the first person plural always induces a certain ‘Gott mit uns’-type queasiness, and the thought that the scope for identification between sinewy athletes and the British viewing public, sofa-stranded and bloated, is a bit tenuous. Still, as the economy continues to crap out, we blear-eyed viewers learn we care more than we ever thought about pukka equitation or the mysteries of luffing (‘Oh no! Saskia’s failed to trim her spinnaker!’). Daily Mail-reading immigration-haters whoop heartily over the successes of Christine Ohuruogu and Mo Farah, and rouse themselves from the sofa to dance ‘the Mobot’.
'I forgot how rare and intoxicating collective joy is. It revives the heart, a bit, doesn't it?' said Megan Cat-Noises on Twitter. I may be the only person in the country to have woken up depressed on Saturday morning. Perhaps it's just what collective joy does to me and I am therefore to be pitied. It's certainly the case that I deeply dislike spectacle of all kinds and the heavy symbolism it demands. Still, let me try and clarify a little my response to the Olympic opening ceremony.
I watched the Olympic opening ceremony sitting on the roof of a narrowboat near King’s Cross. Boat dwellers have had it hard under the Olympic regime, and many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the Olympic Park, moved on because they supposedly presented a water-borne security risk. Danny Boyle’s nostalgiafest was projected onto a screen stretched between two trees on the canal bank. I didn’t pay close attention – the trees got in the way, the BBC iPlayer kept cutting out – but cycling, which the British have been expected do well in, seemed to feature heavily. Bradley Wiggins rang a bell; Chris Hoy paraded round waving the Union Flag; hundreds of winged cyclists flapped their way, ET-like, into the evening sky.
In the next issue of the LRB, Iain Sinclair will be writing about Olympic fallout. Here he is in 2008, on the razing of East London to make way for the park: The scam of scams was always the Olympics: Berlin in 1936 to Beijing in 2008. Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. Warrior-athletes watched, from behind dark glasses, by men in suits and uniforms. The pharmaceutical frontline.
The only football ticket I’ve ever bought a from a tout was for the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and United at Wembley last year. It cost me more than a third of my monthly rent. After the tout had satisfied himself that I wasn’t a cop he told me that the ticket was ‘one and a half’ and that I could collect it from his pal. ‘My mate’s in the bookies, ’cause it’s bent round here with the Old Bill.’ In the bookmakers there were horses on the telly, beer in the air, and football on everyone’s lips. A thin man with an unlit cigarette in his mouth gave me a ticket in a Club Wembley branded envelope, and I handed over £150.