Winning is everything but the British crowds have really shown the world why the Olympic ideal of taking part really does matter

The London Olympics will leave many memories but, for me, Eton Dorney on Friday morning sums it up. I had got up at 6am to get there because I wanted to see whether Katherine Grainger would finally win a gold in the women’s double sculls, so often having been the bridesmaid at previous Olympics and making do with silver.

The 20,000 odd crowd had come for this moment yet the day began with an F final in men’s single sculls between Mejri from Tunisia, Etia Ndoumbe from Cameroon and Djibo Issaka from Niger. Actually it was not a final in the sense that most of us would understand the word, it was a classification match to decide which of these rowers would finish in the last three positions of this competition. Now, in many other sports, football for instance, such a contest would not happen and, if it were to take place, it would provoke universal derision.

But, not only did those three rowers start off the day’s proceedings, but the crowd cheered and encouraged them rather than mocking them. What made this even more extraordinary is that the three of them looked like they had jumped into a boat just minutes earlier, never having rowed before. Indeed the man from Niger said that he had only started rowing three months earlier.

And, just to emphasise how amateurish their performance was, the winning time of Mejri in the F final of 7.33.62 was almost a minute behind the time of the gold medal winner, New Zealander Drysdale on 6.57.82 and also slower than the 6.58.55 that Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins clocked as Grainger finally reached the summit she has so long been aiming for.

It is this juxtaposition in one morning of the truly amateur with the truly great that makes the Olympics special. In no other competition or even human activity is this possible. And, what it shows is that the Olympic motto – participate even if you have no hope of winning – is not an over-used cliché. There are sportsmen from all over the world who believe this and there are crowds like those at Eton Dorney who, far from laughing at them, relish the chance to encourage them to achieve their own particular dreams.

For all commercialisation of modern sport and the endless search for filthy lucre, the idea of just taking part, even if it is only to win the F final for 31st place in the men’s single sculls, matters.

And what Friday morning at Eton Dorney has done is to give us all a ready answer to silence the sceptics who ask, “Why bother with the Olympics?”


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