Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The problem with this winning lark

I, like more or less everyone else who was unable to get out of London for the Olympics, have really been enjoying it, revelling in the fact that I was unable to get out of London and have been able to be part of the spectacle, which has mainly consisted of me watching it on telly and occasionally considering trying to buy a ticket. I've been hanging over the Wikipedia entries on Olympic cycling rules like a bad smell, hoping to just about understand the latest Omnium event before it finishes, and I have been regurgitating spurious info on the metal composition of the medals or the chemical composition of Victoria Pendleton’s underwear to passing motorists; in short I’ve been an Olympic cheerleader, although not an Olympic-standard cheerleader, but I’ve got down with the programme and shouted at the right times and generally tried to forget my last seven years of doomsaying and overall Olympic badmouthing that attentive readers may possibly recall.

And yet, and yet, something’s not right here, Stanley. Something’s just not A-OK. I don’t mean the panem et circuses element, which Andy Worthington alludes to here, nor the subjugation of athletic prowess to the myth of the State, which Mike Marqusee considers here; although I don’t know why not, because they’re both right and worth reading, and I speak as a great panum eater and circuses watcher; anyway I’m not really talking about the distracting of a crushed populace with illusionary visions of success and national unity while stealing the roofs over their heads stuff, I’m more talking about sport, competition and especially winning.

I’m not really one of nature’s winners – a whiner maybe – or at least I never win unless I absolutely have to, an attitude born largely of intense laziness, and also probably due to being well looked after as a youngster and as a result generally feeling safe and secure and complacent and spoilt. I do know how to win, in that I have occasionally stirred myself to victory over someone in something, or at least I imagine I have done, but generally winning is something to be looked down upon, a consolation for inadequate types, who can’t just be happy sitting in their underwear at 3 in the afternoon.

And much as I cheered Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis and the rest I am struck with unease at their celebrations and those of the crowd – what are they so blinking happy about? That they won? Why? Someone had to. It was them, this time. They’re like: all that hard work paid off, while next to them someone else who put in presumably an equal amount of hard work – or even more, in the case of Usain Bolt’s rivals – are going “I’m so sorry, I let everyone down, I’m so sad and useless” and if they lived in Imperial Japan would probably be expected to go and commit hari-kari right there and then and I’m left asking: Why? Why are you sad, why are you happy? “Because I won!” says the winner; “Because I lost!” says the loser. And I understand that, I do, I get it, but still I’m left thinking: So what? It’s a bit me, me, me isn’t it this winning lark? (While all of the crowd are going: it’s us, us, us!) And once you're about 13, aren't you expected to sort of get over it?

It’s strangely self-absorbed and the more I think about it the more unfathomable it seems. It’s not achieving the unachievable, breaking down barriers, climbing Everest or running under 4 minutes (and even most of these descended into races between frankly deranged individuals), it’s just being better than the other guy, whoever he is. It's the irrelevance of it that is so striking. It's just a game, just for sport. And you've only overcome another person; a person who on another day might have just as well beaten you. Of course I can understand the satisfaction of winning, and getting a 92.6% silver medal coated in gold for your pains, of completing a goal that has taken an entire life of dedication, robbed you of the pleasures of youth and which will bequest to you an old age of knacked knees, and yet, when all is packed up in the wheelie bin of life, what good is it if you have to have a loser beside you to make you a winner?

Friday, August 03, 2012

It goes in cycles – a short story

“Hold your fucking horses, bike boy.”

The cyclists crushed his brake handles in shock, crushed them so hard his tendons stung and he felt the imprint of the handles dig into his palms. The bike screeched to a stop, the back wheel rearing up behind him, and he wobbled on the spot, partly off balance, mostly out of fear.

Superman was stomping towards him, cape billowing, ground quivering, bright boots kicking through the thin puddles. No-one else was around. Hardly any windows, and only a few birds, overlooked the quiet side street. The cyclist wanted to look round, wanted to turn his head, but he was too frightened. His stomach wrung like a towel at each of Superman's approaching steps.

“Now tell me,” said the Man of Steel, when he was close enough that the cyclist could feel his breath rasping against his ear. “Do you know what a red light is for?”

The cyclist spoke, but said nothing, unable to muster the air to stir his vocal chords. He looked down at his bike, as if it was responsible; either for his dereliction or his feeble lungs. The bike in turn, as if equally ashamed, wobbled beneath him, then the front wheel twisted out, and it collapsed in a heap. The cyclist, still without looking at Superman, dropped his head a little more.

“Well?” asked the only surviving son of the planet of Krypton. “You know the rules of the road?”

“I do sir,” rasped the cyclist, finally, looking bolt ahead.

“And what are they for?” the costume-clad superhero spat, glad to have a response and not just be yelling at a mute.

“Stopping traffic.”

“Right. And you? Are you traffic?”

“I am sir.”

“You are traffic, yes indeed, you are. And tell me, did you stop at the red signal?”

“No sir,”  said the cyclist sadly.

“And why not?”

Superman’s breath was heating up now, and the cyclist wondered if it was going to singe the hairs on the back of his neck. 

“I don’t know sir.”

“You don’t know do you? That's a pretty pathetic answer, if you ask me.” The breath was hot. You could probably cook on that breath. It was like a bunsen burner.

That breath. A superhero's breath. That breath had been up the noses of some of the greatest master criminals of the modern day. It had blown in the faces of Presidents and Vice-Presidents, berated evil dictators and tantalised the necks of the world's most beautiful women. And now it scorched a cyclist's ear. How times had changed. The paparazzi had a lot to answer for, that was for sure. 

There was a pause, and it occurred to the cyclist that he should probably say something, some kind of entreaty, but he had no idea what that might be, and in any case it felt infinitely safer to just remain silent, as if things would only get worse if he spoke. But Superman didn’t speak either, and the cyclist began to worry now quite considerably that he was probably meant to say something, something clever or apologetic, or whatever it had to be, in order to stop the tireless fighter for peace, justice and the American way from drop-kicking him over a skyscraper, or bionically lobbing him into a special flat glass prison and Frisbee-throwing it into outerspace, or just delivering him to the police, arms bent back in a completely unnecessary and much too harshly applied full Nelson, because superheroes don’t know their own strength – I mean how can they – and they probably injure far more captives than they mean to, even when they don’t mean to.

The cyclist bit his lip. Still nothing occurred to him. Then Superman spoke again, only he was much quieter, and his voice echoed about the buildings.

“Hey you, pick up that litter!”

And the cyclist turned his head, saw Superman some fifty yards down the road, berating a middle-aged woman in ill-matched woollens. He picked up his bike and made off, pedals rattling beneath his shaking feet.