This article originally appeared in our Elevenses newsletter.
Good morning. Sport in the coronavirus era has lurched, seesaw-like, between escapism and opportunism. Take the last, mostly fan-less Premier League season. Football’s return to our screens initially offered locked-down fans a respite from the relentless bad news being beamed into our homes. But soon enough, with Arsenal playing practically every other weeknight and knackered players buckling under a barrage of muscle injuries, respite turned to drudgery. Football started to feel more like the completion of a contractual obligation than a game.
The Olympic Games, now well underway in Tokyo, seemed set to follow a similar path. Amid a state of emergency in Japan’s capital, the opening ceremony – held at a new 60,000-seat stadium, constructed at a cost of £1 billion – took place without any fans. The rest of the games will be played out in near-silence too, in sparkling new arenas empty but for the gilded cadre of VIPs – sponsors, politicians and the like – permitted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Had Tokyo not gone ahead, the IOC would have had to refund some £2.9 billion to broadcasters – nearly 75 per cent of its total revenue.
As for the broadcasters, British fans have been left dismayed by the paucity of coverage offered by the BBC which had, for past Games, acted as a portal for fans to access such obscure sports as Greco-Roman Wrestling. But under the restrictive rules of a new television rights deal, the BBC is only able to show two live sports at the same time. Why? Because Olympic bosses have flogged most of the rights to American subscription-based giant Discovery.
There have been a string of other controversies and crises. Days before the opening ceremony, its director was forced to resign after old jokes he’d made about the Holocaust were unearthed. The head of Tokyo’s organising committee quit in February after suggesting that women talk too much. Then there’s the spectre of Russian athletes competing in Tokyo not for Russia, but for the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’, as punishment for its state-sponsored doping programme. That’ll teach ‘em.
Read that rap sheet and cynicism comes easily. These Games feel hollow – more about getting it finished with reputations and bottom lines unscathed than anything else. Then Tom Daley – and diving partner Matty Lee – came along, twisting and piking and pirouetting. Daley first appeared on our screens in Beijing, a baby-faced 13-year-old. In the years since, he has lost his father to brain cancer, won bronze at London 2012 and again at Rio 2016. He came out as one of British sport’s few openly gay men in 2013, and became a father in 2018. He’s been the subject of gallons of newspaper ink, occupied leagues of column inches. Until, yesterday, finally, gold.
Daley’s tears on the podium, and his wonderfully assertive speech thereafter, were a tonic for those of us worn down by the joylessness of these Games. His triumph was a reminder of what sport, when the crap and the corporatism is stripped away, is all about – a moment of long-awaited individual triumph which all of us can feel. Sport can perform miracles. Even in the midst of a raging dumpster fire, it lets us block out the static. It draws us in and immerses us, dunking our heads under the water until nothing else matters. And for all the Games’ supposed immorality, that power and purity endures. We just needed Tom Daley to remind us.
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