Category Archives: Olympics

The Olympic Park

I have been really busy over the past few days with work and the Paralympics. I have absolutely loads to write about the latter, but, as I am off out again today it will have to wait, for now. In the meantime I am sharing this picture because it makes me happy. I had forgotten my camera yesterday and thought that I had only the useless Blackberry. I was delighted when I found my work phone in my rucksack after a rummage around looking for something else.

For a park that has had literally millions of visitors, the Olympic Park has kept ‘its head whilst all around are losing theirs’ (to quote Kipling) and I was really pleased with this photograph I grabbed through the crowds yesterday lunchtime.

What I particularly like about it, is the way the people’s heads bobbing around in the middle of the shot are almost indistinguishable from the flowers themselves. The park lies on a site that was, not so long ago, a polluted industrial site. All the plants have to be shallow rooted because below the 30 cm of new top soil, the earth remains toxic.

Big props to the man behind the planting, Dutch horticulturist, Piet Oudolf. Its’s a beauty.

The Stadium in its meadow setting

Paralympics: True Diversity

Foreground: National Maritime Museum
Background: The Cutty Sark, The Shard & the City

I went to the morning session at Greenwich Park today to see the Equestrian competitors. The competitors were Grade II, the second most severely disabled riders and although they all rode the same dressage test, there any similarities ended.

Each rider was announced into the ring not just by name and horse, but by age and career, with a brief precis of how they had come into Paralympic sports. The ages ranged from something like 17 to 56, the previous and current professions varying from anaesthetist to film stunt rider to surgeon. Most riders had a sporting philosophy which were also shared with us, my favourites being:

Don’t start tomorrow what you can do today

Look at the doughnut, not the hole

The routes into Paralympic sport were many and varied; one of the athletes had previously been an Paralympic swimmer. Some had been born with disability, some athletes had met with accidents, the majority of which were on horses… One woman had contracted a disability after being poisoned by a pesticide.

And then there were the horses and the weather. We had rain, we had sun, we had wind and we had clouds, we had brief spells of warmth and some teeth-chattering cold; not once or even twice but enough to remind us that the only thing we can be certain of in life is that change is always happening somewhere. The horses were a delight. Lining up against the more traditional stamp of warm-blooded dressage-type horse with floating paces and extravagant gaits were smaller pony types described variously as pedigree unknown, not listed or this piebald one below, with the most marvellous feather, announced as a ‘native cob’.

Barbara Minneci, Belgium with Barilla

This competitor rode side-saddle, but we had paraplegic riders using two schooling whips as aids, riders who had to have their legs strapped down, and one competitor Angelika Trabert from Germany who was born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She rode a beautiful test on Arriva-Avant to finish 9th. Her life philosophy is, ‘It’s ability, not disability, that counts!’

The diversity of horses and riders is fascinating. Clearly, the horses are selected based not just on ability, but the ability of their rider to form a successful partnership with them. The flashy power of a Grand Prix dressage horse is not for every Paralympian rider to contain and yet without that I still found the quiet spectacle of these riders and horses both mesmerising and deeply affecting. Somebody said on the television the other day that Paralympians did not want people to feel sorry for them. I was shocked; I can honestly say that the thought had never crossed my mind. Why would a sports person performing at the top of their game evoke sympathy in me, or you? Still, there is something extra to watching Paralympian sport. I think, for me, it is something to do with the showcasing of the essential human spirit, the ability to get on with taking the steps needed to achieve goals and realise dreams.

The differences between the horses and the competitors extend to how the crowd is to show their appreciation. Some horses and riders can be applauded in the usual way, some only when the horse has left the immediate test arena and the coach has a hand firmly on the bridle. Some horses prefer to ‘ponied’ into the arena by the ‘friendly horse’ and there were two horses that we could not applaud at all. One of these partnerships was Lauren Barwick with her horse Off to Paris, representing Canada. They entered in silence apart from the music that is played continuously throughout the tests. As the test started a new song began, I don’t even know what it was, but it fitted the mood. The test this pair went on to produce together was thing of beauty. There are no words I can use to describe it adequately, you had to be there. It was not marked the highest by the judges (they came 3rd), but the energy and connection between the rider and her horse was palpable. When it ended, the crowd had to remain silent. I was overwhelmed and could only release the high emotion generated by the horse and rider through shedding a few quick tears, and by hand-waving, as we had been told by the commentator was the alternative way to show support and appreciation. Thousands of us waving in silence.

I have seen competition dressage before, I have ridden the odd test of my own 20 years ago. This is not a paean to dressage per se. What it is, is a witness statement to riders who find new ways to work with their horses to achieve something that looks so simple, but is fiendishly tricky, even with the use of all your limbs. The morning’s highest score belonged to the GB Para Dressage rider Natasha Baker, who has developed a system of voice commands to ride the tests on her horse Cabral. Curiously, although I enjoyed her test immensely and clapped hard and the kids waved the Union Jacks, the partisan nature of supporting Great Britain was muted. With the Paralympics, it is not so much sitting there to support one’s own small dot of a country, it feels much more like you are sitting there to support and will on the human race.

So many times I have felt that the title of my blog ‘On wishes and horses’ might seem vacuous and misleading, appearing to lack any real intent or motivation. The truth is I took it from the rhyme, ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride…’ which of course means that wishes are useless. I am keeping the blog title, at it continues to remind me that the type of intent on show today is everything.

To clarify, courtesy of delightmakers.com (whose website is down as I write)

Intent is not a thought, or an object, or a wish. Intent is what can make a man succeed when his thoughts tell him that he is defeated…

In this case I would amend the saying slightly, ‘Intent is what can make any human being or horse succeed when their thoughts might tell them they are defeated’. That is the essence of what I think I saw today, and it was simply one of the most amazing and renewing days of my life.

Updated 3 September: This post has proved popular. For more on the Paralympics, my take on Oscar Pistorius and Bladegate is here

The Olympics: a critic’s viewpoint

I read this interview with Wilf Self on www.thebrowser.com and I have pulled out this extract where Self labels the Olympics as horseshit. Some of his points? Well it’s hard to not agree in parts, particularly about the role of corporate sponsorship, but what intrigued me most was his assertion, that I have put in bold type, where he states that winning and losing are essentially functionless human endeavours.

Philosophically, I might end up agreeing, but I would need a long time to think about it. However, biologically and evolutionally speaking (is that a word, or did it just evolve?), winning and trying not to lose have been physically and mentally hard-wired for our survival.

In the world of Will Self, would we then become, ideally, brains in boxes, or, is there still something to be said for celebrating the possibilities of whole humans: body, mind and soul?

Not sure, just asking.

    From street games to the Games, will you give us a cynic’s word on the Olympics?

I’ve been a constistently outspoken critic of the whole thing. I object to my tax money being wasted on it, and I object to performance sport in general. I think it’s horseshit. Why don’t you just go run in a field, with sheep? It’s meaningless that some guy on a bicycle gets given 20 million quid. And the way the Olympics exist in a grotesque linkage or synergy with the international finance capital is so obvious. Both are arenas that exalt an essentially functionless and useless human performance of winning and losing, and use that as the tail that wags the dog. That’s why the Olympics feed so enormously into the collective psyche.

    When it comes to London’s financial sporting performance, at least, we’ve seen recently that we all cheat and dope.

Exactly. The anology continues. HSBC has its doping scandal, as athletics has its own. The two of them are mirror images. No one should be shocked that there is corruption in the Olympics – that tickets are sold through foreign agents, that athletes are taking drugs and have huge financial contracts, that sponsors refuse to let people wear T-shirts with other corporate logos on them, that Macdonald’s makes you fat, that the infrastructure built in Stratford is useless to anybody, and that the Olympic legacy will not be fulfilled.

Schadenfreude is an unpleasant attribute, but if I were prone to it I could tell you that in a month or two’s time, the cost will come home big time, and people will start getting pissed off. The government couldn’t raise the money for the Olympics through the private sector, so the taxpayer had to put the money up for it – was forced to do so, undemocratically. And we will have nothing to show for it.

Katherine Grainger & Anna Watkins earlier today

And then I must just give a quick shout out to the grammarians who are raging about like rampant bulls, thoroughly hufflepuffed by approved Olympic nouns transmogrifying into new, and non-groovy Olympic verbs like medalling, to podium and skyrocketing. They aren’t the most elegant sounding, I’ll admit, but, ’twas ever thus linguistically I’m afraid, ’twas ever thus. Google it if you don’t believe me…

The Olympic Ceremony: where time and space and ‘I’ dimensions collapse

Well, they did for me anyway. At first, I was full of cynicism. Oh a green hill, and, oh, a hymn *shudders*. Then Kenneth Branagh doing Isambard Kingdom Brunel, whilst quoting Shakespeare, in a top hat and ‘scary facial whiskers’ (to quote my daughter) bothered my sensibilities somewhat and the grubby working classes, well worked… until, the five Olympic rings were forged before my eyes and raised above the stadium and then, you might say, we were all on the same page. That sentence took some writing. Not unlike the time (cubed) it took for me to catch up with the vision.

There’s no need for me to catalogue what came next is there? All I want to say really, is this. The time passed awfully quickly and when Muhammad Ali faltered onto the stage I cried.
I didn’t cry a little, I cried a lot. I have mentioned Ali on here before, mainly as a beautiful individual and a lyrical gangster. The night before the opening ceremony I had coincidentally waved his photo biography at a small audience and extolled his many qualities, lest they troubled to forget.

Then last night, as if by magic, there he was. He looks so different from his prime. It’s more than age, it’s the ravages of the cruel neurological disease that is Parkinson’s, a disease that afflicted my grandfather. Last night, I had to look and look again to be sure, ‘Is that Muhammad Ali?’ And then, when Ali moved to touch the Olympic flag, suddenly, time and space collapsed and so did I. In that Olympic moment I was a child again, watching Ali in black and white on the portable tv, listening to his patter and his press conferences. I was reading him, occasionally writing about or quoting him, over a lifetime. I was the age I am now, waving his picture to strangers and I was all I can ever try to be, somehow incredibly knowing shared humanity, connected through all our wondrous possibilities.

I am nothing to Muhammad Ali, and he is nothing and no-one and everything and everyone to me. How much easier for a man of his age, and frailty to stay at home out of the public’s gaze, than fly to London for a late night gig. But despite the disease, the age, the infirmity and confusion, he is the same as he ever was, because he was there. There, still fighting his battle, on the world stage. And to me, that is the Greatest Ever Inspiration any of us could wish for.

Muhammad Ali with his wife Yolanda Williams

He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.

Olympic ideals for parents

The Olympic torch came through our town a few weeks ago. It was a wet day; the children were allowed time off school to see this once in a lifetime event with their families. I took my two girls, who were distinctly underwhelmed; in fact they spent a lot of time moaning.
It doesn’t matter though, they saw it and the youngest took the photograph of the torch bearer as she had the best view. I haven’t parented outside the 21st century so I can’t compare the job with that of my parents, or theirs, but I suspect every generation faces its own unique challenges, as well as some in common. I believe as parents, all that you can do, is provide the opportunity for them and let them make of it what they will.

I wrote this to myself as a reminder, for when things get tough, as they always do.

Foster aspiration

Make opportunities

Remember!

You cannot have all of it

Use your wisdom

Let go of something, or something will let go of you.

At least if you take the former option you have the choice

Take photographs. You cannot have too many.
Whatever you hope to remember you will most assuredly forget

Do one thing at a time – you will get less done, better

If you’re in the room, be in the room

Make time to leave the room. Alone

Listen with your heart

Don’t live just in your head

Get in your body – it’s missed you

Guilt is the most pointless construct, until you commit a crime. If you are legal, ditch the guilt

Our best is all we have to give

Sometimes we think our best is not good enough – even then it is all we have to give

Give what you can

Take as little as you need

Notice everything

Stick your tongue out in the snow

Kick off your shoes

Take a walk in the rain

Wear holes in your socks

Let the light in

But know when to draw the blinds

Get muddy

Accept imperfection, it is your friend

Look them in the eye

Gaze into your soul

Mostly, stay hungry, stay foolish (via Steve Jobs)

Discover your purpose,

Persevere infinitely

And pass the torch on