James Cairney: The three-step programme to improving the Olympics

WE need to talk about the Olympics. With the delayed Games finally getting under way in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago, the whole world has been glued to their televisions to watch the globe’s best and brightest challenge each other at the pinnacle of their disciplines.

There has been all the usual elation and heartbreak; the highs and lows as dreams are achieved and shattered on the grandest stage of all, often in the most dramatic and gut-wrenching manner. Despite the largely empty stadia and somewhat subdued feel to these Games in the time of Covid, the various competitors still manage to consistently produce memorable triumphs and failures as they vie for supremacy at the top of their sport.

That’s the marketing material, anyway. And while it is mostly true, there is another theory that I’d invite you to consider: there’s too much on at the Olympics, and as a result we’re not always getting what’s fair to expect. And that’s before we even descend into the daily labyrinth that’s the schedule for the Games, where even the most skilled cartologist can find themselves wandering endlessly in search of what to watch.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I propose that we need a cull at the Olympics. There are sports at these very Games that could be cut and thereby improve the overall product. But where to begin? Luckily for you, reader, I have devised a simple three-step program for separating the wheat from the chaff.

IF IT ISN’T TOP, YOU SHOULD DROP

For most athletes at the Games, departing Tokyo with a gold medal draped around their neck would represent the peak of their professional careers – heck, maybe even their entire lives. It’s decades of work paying off in a matter of a few crunch minutes where they are ultimately declared, emphatically and unequivocally, to be the world’s best at their chosen discipline.

You’ll notice I said ‘most’ there. That’s because for some sports, the Olympics represent little more than a bonus prize: a mildly enticing chance of success that can easily be brushed off as unimportant in the grand scheme of things, should the tournament end in disappointment.

Take the men’s football, for instance. You’ll be hard pressed to find any football supporter who is genuinely passionate about the games at the Games – at least, within these shores. Part of that is definitely due to the lack of a Team GB for fans to rally behind but as the women’s side has shown, the reality is that a squad comprised of players from the four home nations ultimately ends up being an Anglo-centric affair.

When the men’s Brazilian team won gold in Rio the celebrations were wild but that was because it was the only tournament that the South American nation had never won. It was more of a cathartic release, a box-ticking exercise than a suggestion that Brazil were the world’s greatest team.

This is my problem with things like football or golf or rugby sevens or tennis. Winning an Olympic gold isn’t seen as the crowning achievement in the sport. Sure, it’s nice and people rightly feel elated when they do so, but it simply isn’t held in the same sort of reverence as the World Cup, a Grand Slam or a Ryder Cup. And for that reason, they’re out.

NOTHING INVOLVING ANIMALS

This ain’t the animal Olympics (although that does sound like fun). Humans only. That should be self-explanatory. And to be honest, any excuse to get rid of dressage is worth it in this brave reformer’s eyes. It’s dancing horses at the end of the day.

Sorry, but anything involving our equine friends can clippity-clop outta here. You can stay for now, modern pentathlon, but I’m going to need to see a few changes if you’re to avoid the cull. Which reminds me …

IS IT REALLY AN OLYMPIC SPORT?

At the risk of making enemies with people who are highly trained to use deadly weapons, we need to draw the line somewhere about what is and isn’t an Olympic sport. For me, shooting falls into the latter camp. I don’t mean to denigrate it (please don’t shoot me) but I live by a simple and arbitrary rule: if you don’t have to change your shoes, then it’s not a sport.

The rules set out by the International Shooting Sport Federation say that a competitor’s shoes have to be a bit bendy but that’s about it. It doesn’t pass my utterly arbitrary test, and therefore it’s gone.

People may think I’m being harsh or downplaying these athletes’ achievements but I have nothing but respect for what they’ve accomplished. I understand that riders involved in dressage or those firing rifles at targets require a huge amount of athleticism to do what they do. The physical demands are strenuous.

Relegating them from the Olympics is not to say they lack technique or mental strength, or that their preparations for the Games are not arduous. But that alone shouldn’t be the only prerequisite we pay any mind to, or we’d have to start including chess in the Olympics.

You might well scoff at the idea – and to be honest, it’s not a proposal I’m seriously advocating – but hear me out. In an effort to underline the athleticism required to compete in shooting at an Olympics, the Tokyo 2020 website points out that those involved often shed two pounds a day, such is the strenuous physical demand. Which is the exact same for the world’s top chess players as they play in tournaments.

Chess players can burn up to 6000 calories a day at a major tournament due to the mental stress and anxiety involved, as ESPN’s Aishwarya Kumar explains in an excellent article on the phenomenon. Per hour, they’re burning the same number of calories as Roger Federer does in an hour of tennis. Grandmasters prepare for tournaments with a strict diet and exercise regimen that is a little incongruous to our perceptions of chess.

But should it be an Olympic sport? Not on your nelly. It’s a mental test with physical demands and for me, shooting falls into a similar category. We need to draw the line somewhere, and being physically demanding and requiring your fair share of mental fortitude isn’t a high enough bar. Now if you excuse me, I’m away to search for a bulletproof vest.

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