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Kathy Sheridan: Where do five-pints-in fans get confidence to tell Olympic athletes how to do it?

Athletes triumph with ambition and talent as gold medal-obsessed fans pontificate lazily

An Olympics without physical spectators feels distinctly odd.

No beaming families and gaggles of supporters on the emotional and cultural spin of a lifetime, no spotting-the-Tricolour-in-the-stands thrills, no long, charged ovations from fans with personal insight into the enormous familial sacrifices implied by an athlete’s mere presence on Olympian turf.

Instead we have to settle for wonky family videos of disbelieving shrieks in living rooms and visuals of the athletes themselves offering themselves up for interview in the most crushing moments of their young lives. You didn’t have to be a boxing fan to be pierced by the quiet heartbreak of Emmet Brennan after the 30-year-old Dubliner’s narrow loss to the world’s number two.

Brennan had taken out credit union loans to support himself, worked a part-time job while training full-time and, though dogged by injury, finally managed to qualify for the Olympics in June.


The fact no athlete in Tokyo got there without that extraordinary, driven, agonising combination is what makes the spectacle so compelling

Or Jack Woolley, still only 22 but training for this moment since the age of 13, distraught after losing his opening fight in the Taekwondo.

“I don’t have much of a social life, I have to put everything on hold. It’s training, training, training. Even my coach has put everything on hold for this, and I feel like I’ve let many people down.”

These rare glimpses into young lives barely lived in the pursuit of a dream are inspiring but also chastening in their austere lifestyles.

A standing rebuke to vacuous instant fame culture for sure but also an intimation of something the two might have in common – an answer to the longstanding question about ambition versus talent: which matters more to success? That would be ambition hands down according to British boxer Luke Campbell who won gold in the 2012 Olympics:

“Talent is nothing without dedication and discipline, and dedication and discipline is a talent in itself.”

Herculean stories

When the British swimmer Adam Peaty won gold this week, his response was less a triumphalist homage to his consistent breaststroke than to the hunger for gold – and luck. “I’m just so f**king relieved . . . It’s not who’s the best all year round, it’s the best person on the day who’s the most adaptable and really f**king wants it more.”

Even if boxing or swimming or skateboarding bore you senseless, the fact that no athlete in Tokyo got there without that extraordinary, driven, agonising combination is what makes the spectacle so compelling. The Herculean back stories, the battle to stay motivated through the pandemic, the fact that managing to arrive at these Olympic Games ready to compete is in itself a major achievement are timely reminders of what it takes to just stay in the game.

Sport is no guide to life – unlike life, professional sport has clear, written-down rules with transparently measurable results and with rare exceptions is available to the young – but if there is something in there to inspire average mortals, it might be encapsulated by the past year’s bloody-minded resilience.

And yet for some sofa-bound, pontificating punters, it’s never enough.

When Piers Morgan tweeted “Real sporting champions don’t celebrate coming 3rd”, it was toddler-style attention-seeking. But it was triggering. It doubtless rang true for some athletes. Could any athlete be happy with a bronze medal? One poster on social media would prefer to see silver and bronze listed as attained or achieved because “you can’t win’ a silver or bronze” and the 0.1 percenters wouldn’t see it as winning anyway.

Someone else suggested a survey. To what purpose though? Maybe to “prove” that the individual’s backstory, striving and sacrifice are irrelevant and futile if they achieve only second- or third-best in the world?

Five-pints-in fans

It’s like those school league tables that measure success purely on the numbers that go on to university and tell us nothing about courage against the odds. At a more pedestrian level, Morgan’s comments crystallise that gaggle of five-pints-in, physically uninspiring “fans” sitting directly behind you at a match, screaming non-stop instructions at the players.

You wonder how precisely they acquired such technical expertise, at what level they played the game, how much discipline, talent or raw suffering they pumped into their efforts – or failing that, what in the name of God showered them with the confidence to tell elite athletes how to do it.

It was Morgan’s insistence that he was nonetheless “100% behind our @TeamGB athletes in Tokyo” that triggered the (admirably restrained) ire of three-time Olympic heptathlete bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton – “But then [you] don’t celebrate anything other than gold . . .”

Whereupon Morgan showed his class: “Sorry Kelly . . . I know you’re a serial Bronzer but I only celebrate Gold medals”.

In a jokey pre-Tokyo suggestion unrelated to Morgan’s witterings, professor of politics Philip Cowley ingeniously proposed an extra lane in all Olympic athletics races “to be occupied by someone from a nearby pub who thinks they’re it. Athletes are all so fast you get no real sense of speed.

But Derek from the Rose and Crown bringing up the rear would provide a useful comparison . . .” Logistically, extracting Derek from the pub and onto the starting line could be an Olympic challenge but his inclusion would surely quadruple the viewing ratings.

Go Derek!