Saturday, August 09, 2008

A time to race

Time to hide from the TV or finish that thousand page book you started a year ago, for the Olympics are upon us. Yes, I shall watch a few events - the 1500 metres final is the cream of them, long enough for tactics to be potentially decisive but short enough to maintain the tension. But the dancing and prancing ones, the swimming, in which who is who is distinguishable only before and after the action, and most of the team games (baseball and softball rightly for the last time) I will skip. Of course one has to keep an eye out for a genuine new star and the occasional woman competitor of both skill and beauty, like the Canadian high jumper Debbie Brill of long ago. If there is a new one I hope she has enough skill to make the final so I can get another look.

The Times will be represented by a mixed bag of writers led by its chief sportswriter Simon Barnes. Barnes is a versatile journalist and unusually erudite for a sports specialist, up there with Bernard Darwin and Henry Longhurst. He does a column on wildlife on Saturdays, has written novels and rides horses enthusiastically - he understands the mechanics of the reverse (or is it inverse) canter that is apparently a crucial part of the dressage stage of the three day event. But his main, recurring, theme is what one might call the soul of sport, appreciation of its ultimate meaning, why we do it, why the best practitioners do it to the limits, what it means to win and lose in terms of basic, raw human endeavour and emotion rather than titles and prizes. He does it better than anyone else.

On Tuesday Barnes reported on a ‘gig’ he had attended that was sponsored by Omega (BBC and advertisers of over-hyped cure-all foods and medicines please note that is Omega, not Omega), responsible for timing at the games. Jaques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, was there and obliged to make a speech. Barnes feared a traditional brotherhood of sport spiel and was surprised to hear a philosophical essay about time and its relationship to sport. Neat, appropriate and tactful on Rogge’s part certainly but I felt Barnes, unusually for him, missed the mark in his endorsement and appreciation of the theme.

Time matters in sport, Barnes said, adding quite rightly that bullshit, the staple of nearly all post-event commentary, doesn’t. But I think that much sport is at least independent of time and sometimes distorted by too much emphasis on it. The most exciting races are the ones where two or more great competitors come together to find the winner. The winner’s time is secondary. Coe raced Ovett, not the clock. Roger Bannister may be mainly remembered as the first man to beat the four minute mile but his greatest race was when he beat John Landy, who had stolen his world record in the meantime, passing Landy on the outside of the last bend as Landy looked over the other shoulder to see where he was. Gordon Pirie, by contrast, held all sorts of world records but was consistently beaten in head to head races by athletes with slower personal best times. If we miss seeing a race we ask first who won, not what the time was. Time is a measure of progress in training but decisive only when the nature of the event does not allow head to head competition and this surely is why the winter Olympics are so dull, for almost every event has to be decided by either timing or subjective judging. The drama is gone. In which connection what a good device the Cambridge bump races are. With a river too narrow for side by side racing the crews are not timed but set off at equal distances from each other and succeed or fail according to whether they catch up the boat in front before the end of the course. Good primeval competition with the winner clearly apparent as it happens. That is how it should be.

Outside racing sports time can be crucial in defining the end of hostilities. Basketball matches always seem to be determined in the last few seconds and even in chess players run into time trouble and have to rush their moves. Is there a sport unaffected by time? Bowls perhaps, or snooker and some might say golf, but on this last I disagree. There is now a standard for the time a round should take but I have not had much success to date in bringing it to the notice of my club. Just give me time.

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