Like 27 million others in the country, I was glued to the screen on Friday night watching the Olympic opening ceremony. Although the introduction was a little frenetic I thought it soon crystallized into a remarkably dramatic portrayal of British history. The transformation from rural Britain to the Victorian haze of urban industry was captured with amazing imagination as the grass was peeled away and huge chimneys were erected from below ground. Swathes of factory workers were shown toiling under terrible conditions and low pay, representing Cameron’s vision of Big Society and its Victorian inspiration, the Industrial Revolution.
Fat-cat top-hat factory owners, clutching their braces and smoking cigars danced in perfect synchronisation, symbolising the togetherness of Cameron’s Tory party in implementing austerity measures. The pride of Britain, the NHS, was depicted with good humour as happy Great Ormond Street inpatients jumped up and down on their trampoline beds- just like in real life. The extreme cutbacks to the NHS were represented by ghouls and monsters including the genuinely terrifying child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang crawling amongst the hospital beds to the sound of the Exorcist theme tune.
The cauldron was an absolute victory for inventive British design- by far the coolest in Olympic history, and both the Queen’s appearance where she out-acted Daniel ‘Pouty’ Craig and Rowan Atkinson’s ‘Mr Bean Plays the Piano’ both exemplified British humour very nicely. A highlight for me was the Arctic Monkey’s rendition of the Beatles’ Come Together played in darkness as the visually stunning blue wings of cyclists circled the track. The world wars were also handled with appropriate poignancy and respect, as were the events of 7/7. Regarding Tim Berners-Lee, never have so many people simultaneously wikapedia’d a single person- ironically using the very system he invented. The American NBC commentators, talking to a record 40 million viewers, clearly did their research as they admitted to total ignorance of Berners-Lee. (The same network also edited out the Saudi Arabian procession and the 7/7 memorial).
Since then we’ve been collectively held in a vice-like grip of the Olympics, as news coverage reports exclusively on the Games, only briefly mentioning something-or-other going on in Syria. Like millions of others I’m sure, I have on numerous occasions found myself nervously gripped by sports I would not normally register even a fleeting interest in, dishing out ‘expert’ opinion to anyone who’ll listen that I’ve stolen from commentators. ‘Yeah, Egelstaff probably should have played to Sato’s weakness more.’… ‘What, you don’t know? Pff, it’s her over-the-head cross court smash, obviously’. I do actually love discovering more about sports though; particularly the subtleties that lie behind the naked eye.
Perhaps the most exciting event so far, from a British perspective, was the men’s Gymnastics final, where we (‘we’ as in ‘they’) managed to surpass all expectation by winning bronze. For a few minutes it even looked like we had achieved silver but the bloody officious Japanese coaches demanded a steward’s enquiry into their final pummel horse score as they suspected Britain’s pummel horse had made an illegal manoeuvre when overtaking… or something similar. This experience of exceeding expectation has perhaps not typified British attempts so far, but rather than this being a criticism of the athletes I think it reflects the unprecedented level of pressure placed on the team. The spotlight is blinding in comparison to the level of attention placed on the team in Beijing, meaning that unlike four years ago no single British athlete can go ‘under the radar’ and pull off a surprising result. While some may thrive on the support of the home crowd- the men’s gymnastics team being a good example- for many who are unaccustomed to such attention and implicit pressure, the effect can be significantly harmful.
Think about it: you’re a young British athlete who has an outside shot at a medal. In a foreign land, with only a smattering of vocal home support there is little to distract you from your usual competitive performance as others take the limelight. Under these conditions, you may be taken for granted by more established opponents and the fine margins of the sport may give you the opportunity to sneak a cheeky medal. In front of thousands of fans monitoring your every movement, cheering when you do well and falling deftly silent when you don’t (or even booing in the case of men’s volleyball), the feeling of support can turn to overwhelming pressure in seconds.
When under acute pressure, athletes often fall into two traps well recognised by sport psychologists and (some) coaches. The first, known as ‘paralysis by analysis’, is rooted in the natural instinct to concentrate on your physical execution of the skill you’re trying to perform when feeling anxious during performance. When this happens, all the muscle memory developed through years of training breaks down and your movements become jerkier. Unlike beginners, elite athletes typically pay no attention to their movement whatsoever other than when trying to alter a specific technique, so by consciously monitoring themselves, the result is that they essentially regress back to beginner level. As an experiment, try averting your full focus to your thighs as you walk through a crowded area. The result is normally a gait resembling the Ministry of Silly Walks.
The second thing that can happen is, as the mind fills to capacity by the anxiety induced by pressure and self-focus, there’s no remaining space in the working memory to focus on the in-game situation, leading to crap decision making. This perhaps explains why judo player Euan Burton allowed his unfancied Canadian opponent to pin him down after failing to hold the right defensive position, and why Tom Daley wore swimming trunks that were clearly too big for him (he was fiddling away at those things a bit too much anyway though).
With mixed results (the polite way of saying bad results) in the pool so far, other than Becky Addlington, it’s hoped that the final stages of rowing, cycling and sailing will provide the first haul of medals for Team GB, and all indications point to this being the case. Regardless of British achievement, I’m having a whale of a time enjoying the biggest sports orgy in the world. Just to be clear though, I’m only watching. Wait, that actually sounds more creepy…
All photos by Myles Dell