At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto fractured his kneecap during a tumbling run in the floor competition. Most of us would be screaming for morphine and our mothers, but Mr. Fujimoto did something incredible: He knew that his team had no chance of winning gold without him, so he gritted his teeth and performed the next two events, pommel horse and rings, in terrible pain.
During his dismount from the rings, his knee essentially exploded. (Sorry, I had to resort to medical jargon.) He did so well on the rings, scoring 9.5, that the Japanese team won the gold medal. For an Olympic athlete, that’s all that matters. So what if his knee “pops out,” as Mr. Fujmoto puts it, to this day? He got to stand on the highest box, with the eyes of the world upon him, knowing he had done something lesser mortals could never achieve.
If only the Olympics were just about the athletes, and stories like that – there wouldn’t be an unused Kleenex in the world for three weeks. Unfortunately, in the past few weeks leading up to the London Games, most of the attention has been focused on the sideshow that accompanies the athletes: The bread’s been slightly crushed under the wheels of the circus.
Those wheels appear to be wobbling, if not falling off. The British army’s been called in to provide security for the Games, after a private contractor failed to find enough warm bodies to do the job (in a country with an unemployment rate of 8.2 per cent).
The official sponsors, and their government enforcers, are strong-arming their way to a place in the Marketing Hall of Shame. An unholy fight erupted this week over McDonald’s French-fry monopoly on the Olympic grounds; the fast-food giant is the only sanctioned provider of fried potato products to the hungry masses. Perhaps realizing that it was becoming embroiled in a controversy too ridiculous for satire, the fast-food giant caved in and allowed Games workers to eat outlaw fries (The moral of this story: The British will fight for their rights, when the chips are down.)
In Birmingham, the city’s ballet company had to downsize the name of its production, Faster, Higher, Stronger, to merely Faster, because the International Olympic Committee owns bits of the English language (and Latin, too).
Meanwhile, embarrassingly long lines stretched through Heathrow airport, and a very short queue formed as MPs grabbed free tickets to prime sporting events. The good people of Vancouver might be forgiven for a bit of schadenfreude, given the stinging headlines the British dished out during the 2010 Winter Olympics (“Wreckage of a Tarnished Games”). Maybe eating crow could become a medal competition.
“In PR terms,” London’s ever-quotable Mayor Boris Johnson told the Daily Mail, “this is a trough moment.” He was walking through the Olympic Village, where the streets are called Cheering Lane and Celebration Avenue, and where athletes will sleep under duvets printed with the slogan, “excellence, friendship, respect.”
What is in danger of being lost are the stories of those athletes: Legally blind South Korean archer Im Dong-hyun, who sees the target as a blur; British sprinter James Ellington, so desperate for money to continue his training that he sold himself to a sponsor on eBay; Canadian equestrian Eric Lamaze, labouring to overcome the death of his great horse Hickstead.
If anyone could remind the world about the thousands of young athletes who get up before dawn every morning to throw javelins or jump into cold pools, it’s the man who won four Olympic medals and has spent 10 years trying to put these Games together.
“I will always define this as a sporting event,” said Seb Coe as he presented himself before reporters Friday. The London 2012 chief looked tanned, calmer than the mayor and unbitten of fingernail. He did not look like a man who availed himself of sponsorship fries. He did, however admit that “we still have a lot of work to do over the next two weeks – I don’t think that will surprise any of you.”
It may be more than 30 years since he competed at the Moscow Olympics, but Mr. Coe has lost none of his quickness, and he adroitly turned every question – the security fiasco, the controversy of Dow Chemical’s sponsorship, the dreary, unceasing rain – back to where he wanted it to be: about sports. “We are ready to deliver for the athletes,” he said.
If relentless positivity were an Olympic sport, Mr. Coe would add a fifth medal to his collection. “It will be a summer like no other,” he said. “We’re welcoming the greatest athletes of their generation to the greatest city on the planet for the greatest sporting event in the world.” Mr. Fujimoto probably recognizes the confidence.