I really enjoyed watching the Olympic games on TV recently. There’s something very inspirational and moving about seeing the performance of talented athletes who have dedicated years to perfecting their skills, the culmination of their training coming to fruition in the Olympic arena against others who are also at the top of their game. It’s very emotional, watching the triumphs and tears, listening to winners dedicate their medals to those who have supported and encouraged them, and also to see the resolve of those who determine to do better next time.
I love to watch gymnastics, cycling and high jump: it’s always enjoyable to see the sports we’ve dabbled in ourselves and know how hard it is to be really so good. There were unforgettable moments: it was wonderful to see Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar who agreed to share the high jump gold medal. Tamberi belly flopped on the tarmac, rolling around and screaming in delight, a really joyful moment. What a perfect solution to such an exciting and evenly-matched competition between athletes with so much mutual respect.
Other highlights were Tom Daley’s beautifully-knitted Olympics cardigan, his medals and the warm dedication he made on TV to his family. I loved Jason and Laura Kenny’s track triumphs. I was equally moved by GB Cyclist Katie Archibald’s crash, watching her get up and say ‘Never mind, it happens,’ and resetting her focus to win the madison days later. Such moments inspire us all to keep going.
There were sports I didn’t think I liked: I’d never really considered synchronised swimming as something I’d enjoy. But when I watched the Russian team’s performance, I was truly blown away. And the Rugby Sevens gripped me from start to finish: it is such a pacy and exciting game.
Then there were the sports I knew little about but I was so enthralled to watch. Skateboarding, BMX – freestyle and racing. New names and faces emerged on the screen, such as Charlotte Worthington and Kye Whyte, such dedicated and articulate youngsters who are a credit to their families and their country.
I was thoroughly impressed by the coverage on TV, the experts who talked through the different sports with seasoned presenter Gabby Logan, and the brilliant combination of Claire Balding and Alex Scott who brought banter, warmth and a great rapport to their part of the show. It was a real celebration of diverse sports, people and communities.
Indeed, what was truly great about this Olympics was the inclusivity: people from different parts of the globe, different voices and accents, different sports, different outcomes, a celebration of everyone who represented their country, from all backgrounds, with a range of experiences. And we watched the highs and lows, our breaths held, supporting every moment.
And so the football season kicks off soon, and I hope we can take this positivity forward now as supporters of the beautiful game. The backdrop of transfer gossip is already thriving: moneyed clubs stockpiling great players, Grealish moving to City, Harry Kane’s future in the balance. The final Premiership table result at the end of the season ought to reflect the buying power of the rich. What chance do Norwich have? But for the fans, each game is another chance to compete and to win, the thrill of possibility, and each 90 minutes is about the excitement, disappointment, and every triumph is to be savoured.
Supporters play such a key part, even more so if the stadia are full again. Pundits and fans need to do what they are meant to do, support and celebrate. That means not booing players who take the knee, their powerful symbol against racism. It means not haranguing a player who misses a penalty, lets in a goal or has a nightmare of a game. It means not relishing the opportunity to repeatedly focus on someone’s mistake: schadenfreude as a spectator sport is unpleasant to observe on TV during or after any game.
Furthermore, supporting a team on social media should mean positive encouragement and celebration. I was shocked to hear that 20% of the racist abuse on social media last season was directed at just four players. Imagine how they feel! We need to get behind our team and we need to allow others to do the same: it is not acceptable to abuse anyone for any reason. I’m not a Villa supporter, (they gave my team a real pasting last season that I’d prefer to forget but these things happen,) although I respect their style of play. But I have so much time for Villa’s Tyrone Mings, who is a great ambassador for the sport, and I think his comments after the European Championships sum the situation up so well. Not just his taking Priti Patel to task over her dismissive and dangerous labelling of the anti-racism message as ‘gesture politics,’ but his words about how he felt during the Euros, and how the tangible lack of support affected his ability to play his best game on the pitch. He said:
‘I was probably the only name on the team sheet that people thought: ‘Not sure about him.’ And that was something I had to overcome. When 90-95% of your country are having doubts over you, it’s very difficult to stop this intruding on your own thoughts. So I did a lot of work on that with my psychologist. It was hard. I didn’t really sleep very well before that first game.’
Tyrone Mings’s comments sum up perfectly how incredibly difficult it must be to stand in the spotlight and feel alone and unsupported. Psychology and mental health are such a large part of any sport, and negativity from fans and pundits must seep through those players’ shirts and sap their ability to give their best. We can’t ask players to excel when their heads are full of threats, fears and disapproval. We have to change that culture: support doesn’t mean that it’s all right to say negative things about players from different teams, nor does it mean that it is helpful to decimate our own players if they do something human, such as make a mistake. In fact, Tyrone Mings expresses it perfectly: by disrespecting our own players, we are preventing them from giving their best. The essence of support must be the same support we give to our families, our friends and our children, the same support that says it’s all right to make a mistake, to get it wrong: we can grow, develop, progress and triumph.
Back to the Olympic games, consider the performance of Joe Choon. He was the first British man to win gold in the modern pentathlon. Five years after losing a silver medal by poor target shooting, he spent months in lockdown practising on a make-shift range in his back garden, determined to use past failure to create success. He said, ‘I’ve always said I wanted to be the best in the world at something,’ and he has done exactly that. Determination and skill are vital, but also it’s so important to be surrounded by coaches, family, friends, experts who believe that you can succeed and will provide the support to do so.
And I believe that negative words can be the marginal difference between a thriving sports person who forges ahead and one who doesn’t, who is filled with self-doubt and anxiety. So, as the football season begins, let’s take all the incredible positives from these Olympic games, the great inclusivity, belief, celebration, ups and downs, and apply it to the teams we cheer for and support each week. And, within that culture of success and positivity, we will always respect the ones we don’t.