It has, at the time of writing, been but two days since Tokyo 2020 ended but I’m already feeling somewhat bereft. This is often the case when a major sporting event concludes but is perhaps more acute at the end of these Olympic Games because it marks the denouement of what has been a fairly engrossing few weeks of televised sport at a time when there hasn’t been much else to be cheerful about outside of televised sport. Admittedly, I didn’t so much watch the Olympics as catch up with the highlights every morning, as the relative time difference between the UK and Japan meant most events took place at times which were a little inconvenient to watch at the moment that they actually happened. In some respects this made the whole thing a little more digestible. London 2012, as I recall, was pretty comprehensive in terms of the live coverage, which was entirely absorbing but a little overwhelming. It was quite nice to be a little more discerning in the sports I followed this time around and it was no less enjoyable from my perspective, particularly as, unlike with previous Olympics, I actually have other stuff to do these days. Like looking after a small child. Because they don’t look after themselves. No matter how much you try to ignore them.
As summers of sport go, it was all fairly positive from a British perspective. England and Wales both performed above expectations in Euro 2020 and England came pretty close to winning the whole thing before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The British and Irish Lions almost won their series against South Africa too, only to be denied in the dying minutes of the last game. There has been cricket also – I don’t really understand cricket but it looks like England are currently making a good fist of ‘only just’ losing their series against India. Heroic defeats are, of course, the stuff that British sport thrives on.
Which is what makes the Olympics so unusual. Because, of late, Team GB seem to be pretty good at the Olympics. Well the Summer Olympics anyway. We tend to be less good at the winter games, but I think that can be attributed to a general lack of snow in the UK. It tends to hinder the preparations somewhat. That we get any gold medals in the Winter Olympics is rather an overachievement I’d say.
But we’ve really been quite good at the Summer Olympics for a while now. And Tokyo was no exception. We finished fourth in the overall medals table, which is pretty good all things considered. Not as good as Rio, when somehow we managed to finish second and above the Olympic behemoth that is China, and not as good as London, when we finished third, but fourth is, nonetheless, a fairly decent showing for a country that only 25 years ago managed to finish in 36th place. That was, admittedly, a low point for Team GB, but prior to Beijing in 2008, when we also finished fourth, it was fairly normal for Team GB to view tenth as a pretty good result.
Ignominious as our showing in Atlanta 1996 was, many have attributed the more recent successes to that low point. As a nation we were always pretty accepting of not being at the top end of the medal table but 1996 was a bit of a rude awakening and kick-started a somewhat more hard-nosed approach to developing UK sporting talent. This approach has often been ruthless but it has undeniably achieved results. Of course there have been winners and losers as a consequence of this methodology and some athletes have made it clear that they find the funding and selection criteria to be a little bit callous at times. I have certainly been disappointed to be overlooked for the last few Olympics, but I suppose a total lack of sporting talent combined with a general apathy towards physical exercise may have hindered my Olympic dreams.
Not that I haven’t benefitted from the success of Team GB. Even before the boom years, I was inspired as far back as Sydney 2000 to stop being a total couch potato/binge drinker and found myself running my first marathon (admittedly very slowly) just two years later. Sadly, for all London 2012 enthused me, it actually seems to have resulted in nearly a decade of me watching lots of sport but doing very little, which is perhaps not such a good thing. However, having been more active than ever during the pandemic, I suspect Tokyo 2020/21 might well have re-inspired me to run very slow marathons again in the not too distant future. But don’t quote me on that. I’m only ever a bottle of Beaujolais and an ice-cream sundae away from self-sabotage when it comes to personal fitness.
As much as I have personally enjoyed the recent successes of Team GB, I do feel that suffering through the lean years has allowed me to fully appreciate the significance of the current status quo. I worry that there is now an entire generation of young Brits who don’t understand that we’re not actually meant to be this good at sport. And if we don’t regard ourselves as stoic losers then we may have lost something culturally. Now that I’m a parent, these things seem quite important. I don’t want Little Proclaims to accidently develop a sense of national confidence and optimism. That doesn’t seem to be at all British.
Fortunately the pandemic has highlighted another national trait that always fill me with pride and which has been on display almost everywhere of late. We’ve only just become good at sport, but we’ve always been world beaters at queuing. And as long as we can all stand in a line and patiently wait our turn, there’s no danger of our national identity being eroded by inconsiderately talented athletes.