Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Blip: Final thoughts on the Olympics

I am by no means a fitness heretic or coach potato (depending on your particular lexicon); I don’t sit around all day without any stretching or movement, bloating under the pressure of sunlight-absent gaming sessions where all sustenance is obtained from cheesy snacks that would be treated with great disgust and exile if they were examined by the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a near-coma-inducing gaming marathon as much as the next miner. It’s just that I’m also sensible enough to understand the benefits of fitness: Relaxed and restful sleep, bigger and more productive appetite, more stable cycle of hormones, which in turn means a more stable cycle of moods etc. I consider the small amount of keeping-fit exercises that I do to be both effective and fun; a quick jog and some shadowboxing can sometimes be just the thing you need to wake up of a morning, for example. However, I don’t mark it down as an achievement worthy of receiving any praise from any else. I only think of it as an achievement worthy of occasionally patting myself on the back. You can probably see my point emerging now.

            This is my final post regarding the Olympic/Paralympic phenomenon, aside from when one of us expresses our outrage and contempt for the honours list now having a special section just for athletes but as far as I’m concerned that’s a separate matter, and so I thought I’d twist the knife just one last time. As I said earlier, the achievement of exercise, physical competition and sporting attainment is a personal one. Perhaps the club you belong to, the trainer who trains you, the parents who raised you with low expectations or the fans and officials of a given competition can share in that achievement. And perhaps that makes it a form of symbiotic personal achievement; together you all share the achievement by feeling part of the event that allowed it to happen; it may well be vicarious achievement but that doesn’t lessen it. However, a mass of people supporting this feat of faster running, heavier lifting, longer jumping, more accurate ball-kicking or whatever it might be, also doesn’t elevate it to a status worthy of the acknowledgement of objective achievement.

            There are more things to shoot for than ‘stuffy’ intellectual matters; I’m not just supporting the forefront of rocket science, biomedical science and the application of modern robotics in favour of athleticism. This doesn’t come from a position of snobby elitism, it comes from the same logical position that tells the rational amongst us to know not to show off your ill-conceived child’s picture of nothing at dinner parties and expect anything other than patronising mumbles and all out scorn. Your child is not talented, they are not special. They are a child who managed to make incoherent coloured marks on a piece of paper at the age of 5 and although that makes them a genius in your eyes, it makes them the very seat of normality to everyone else. The same applies to athletes. I learnt how to tie my shoes at a relatively late age; I learnt to ride my bike at an extremely late age. I was using stabilisers up and down the tiny garden path, falling over in the middle, banging my head on the shed at one end and faceplanting the brick wall of the house on the other and this was when I was about 10. Doctors have used words like ‘Dyspraxia’ to explain it away but I don’t particularly care how they choose to label it, the point is that with regards to athletic prowess, I was a late bloomer. But nonetheless by the time I was a mid-range teenager I was confidently gliding to school every day on my bike, barely taking the time to touch the handlebars, opting instead to lazily yawn while directing my way through the angled park path with my knees. Not to say I didn’t ever fall off doing this, I recall a time a few days after a major frost, once the ice had all melted, that my front tyre slipped and I tumbled rather disgracefully into an unfortunately placed tree. I hesitate to use the word ‘trapped’ but I just did.

            The final stop for this argument has arrived: I am by no means a fitness heretic and by no means an expert but I am proficient enough in my own body by now to ride a bike, jog around town, get a semi-decent sprint going etc. despite an undeniably shaky start. The key to this possibly non-sequitur seeming sequence is that I don’t consider my physical condition, although not the most impressive in the land, to be any kind of achievement. I choose to stay mildly healthy and well-exercised-ish for the simple benefits it gives me; I would hold making it all the way through the on screen turd museum that calls itself a film ‘Open water’ higher on my list of life achievements than being able to ride a bike. It involves no difficulty. If even an uncoordinated buffoon like me can smoothly ride a bike, climb a tree, run down a track etc. then what is so special when someone does it in groin-stranglingly tight lycra on television. The difference, people would tell me, lies in the level of the activity involved: I’m biking to the shop whereas Bradley Wiggins is going faster and farther. But that doesn’t take more skill; it takes endurance and patience, but no more skill. Fundamentally, he is just riding a bike. It’s rather like how eating an onion ring isn’t impressive and yet people celebrate individuals that can eat 100 of them in one sitting. It isn’t more difficult, it isn’t any different, it’s just scaled up unnecessarily.

            I don’t care if a person’s interests lie in sport or athleticism. If it is a personal goal of theirs to run faster and faster, to bike farther and farther, then have at it. But that is the seeking of one’s passions that I value above everything - I find it the most agreeable trait in a person – it is not actual achievement, it is a natural ability present in mankind that some people choose as a hobby worth exploring. I don’t like being expected to find it impressive that some people who engage in that hobby can complete a certain set activity half a second faster than other fast people. It’s like polishing off that plate of onion rings with fewer gulps from the almost ironic choice of diet coke: It means nothing. Stop pretending that you are worth something by being an athlete. You’re not. Accept that it means nothing but enjoy it anyway, that’s the real way to appreciate what you love. Stop trying to explain or prove it to other people, you are not charged with the constant self-justification and public ego massages that athletes seem desperate to partake in. I’m either making a point here about the inherent psychological tendencies of the average career athlete or a sweeping attack at the misguided valuations of achievement in modern society. You can decide which, I don’t really mind, although I will ask, when was the last time you saw a parade for the winners of the Cannes film festival, Whitbread awards or Pulitzer Prize? 

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