Monday, 13 August 2012

In pursuit of excellence

The 2012 Olympics are finally over (with the Paralympics soon to follow) and I have to admit it - I was completely hooked. From the brilliantly bonkers Opening Ceremony through to the crazily chaotic Closing Ceremony I watched a huge portion of the BBC's output. Football, athletics, swimming, table-tennis, basketball, cycling, plus all the sports I'd hardly heard of - I found myself inexplicably glued to the TV screen. In the past, I've not been inclined to watch much sport on TV and I couldn't have told you any of the athletes' names two weeks ago. But this was different - I was addicted. I've thought a bit about why this was so, and I'll get to the main reason shortly.

But first, a compliment. In marked contrast to the BBC's coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, this time the bods at the Beeb had done their homework and cast presenters who knew their subjects. Ex-sportsmen and women are, of course, very knowledgeable about their fields, even if their delivery may not always we as slick as career presenters. I even looked forward to the post event analysis, especially from Michael Johnson.

Technically too, the BBC seemed to have pulled out all the stops - with cameras and microphones everywhere and plenty of graphic overlays.

The pre-prepared mini-docs enhanced my enjoyment of the sports (aside from the odd occasion where they caused us to miss live action) giving useful texture and background to the athletes (I was meeting for the first time).

So, fair's fair - well done this time BBC!

Back to my reason for this post. What's so enthralling about watching men and women compete against each other in athletic competition? It wasn't the fact that Team GB and Northern Ireland did so well. I didn't care who was winning (well maybe I did shout some encouragement at the TV to Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah and Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendeleton and... OK fair point). But the real draw for me was this: Here we had people (and that includes the athletes' trainers and all the behind the scenes people) who had worked incredibly hard, for many hours each day, for weeks, for months, for years on end in pursuit of one thing - being the best. The pursuit of (sporting) excellence. I find that inspiring. I don't think the impetus to do this is fame and fortune - it's a hard life being an athlete, and the career is painfully short for most of them, with much financial hardship along the way, except for a select superstar few. It is the antithesis of the all-pervading cult of celebrity, which I vainly hope has lost some ground, at least for a few weeks.

We rightly celebrate the achievements of these athletes and I don't begrudge a penny of the support they get from Lottery Funding and other central government budget sources. But - wouldn't it be great if we could get equally excited about chemists, biologists, engineers, scientists? - physicists pushing themselves to solve impenetrable equations, inventors experimenting for years without guarantee of ever succeeding, etc. Or, dare I say it, professional artists, musicians, playwrights?

In the afterglow of a job well done, we need to expand our Olympic thinking not to "Sport for all" - that is missing the point entirely (as governments invariably do) - but to the pursuit of excellence - Faster, Higher, Stronger - in every field of human development in the UK. Let's celebrate the fact that some of us are better at running or maths or chemistry than others - and encourage and nurture those people to their full potential.

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