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Team Global

19 August 2016

HERE are some names from Rio: Anita Wlodarczyk, Wayde van Niekerk, Katie Ledecky, Almaz Ayana, Katinka Hosszú. Clearly, they are not household names in the UK. Indeed, it could be argued that Valegro, Charlotte Dujardin’s horse in the dressage, is better known. The five are among those who have set a new world record at the Olympic Games — in, respectively, hammer-throwing, the 400 metres, the 400m and 800m freestyle swimming, the 10,000 metres, and the 400m individual medley. As one example, Wlodarczyk’s phenomenal 82.29m throw on Monday was mentioned in several accounts of the hammer contest, but generally a long way down the story. Instead, the coverage focused almost exclusively on the efforts of Sophie Hitchon, the first-ever British athlete to make it on to the Olympic podium in the sport. She won a bronze medal with a throw of 74.54m — no mean achievement, of course: a personal best from a hard-working, modest Lancashire sportswoman, and a new British record. But should it have overshadowed Wlodarczyk — who has dominated the discipline since her first world record in 2009 — because she happened to be Polish, not British?

The object of the Games is to bring international athletes together (although not necessarily quite as close together as in the men’s omnium or the free swimming), and reports from the Olympic village and the trackside give plenty of evidence that this has been achieved. More ambitiously, the Games seek to bring nations closer together; but this can happen only if the celebrations for an outstanding performance are extended to athletes from around the world. The temptation to compete vicariously is irresistible to many, and certainly to those in charge of reporting the Games in the UK media. But perhaps a better perspective comes from the person who wanders into the room where the television is on — or looks over a shoulder at the iPad — and remarks dispassionately on the elegance of a move, or the vitality of an attempt, without regard to the nationality of the performer. “Team GB” was a clever marketing invention, and has successfully reduced the number of characters that one has to care for in the Olympic novel to a manageable level; but that very success has undermined the value of the Games as a whole. No Olympic athlete got to Rio without great sacrifice; but it would have been good to hear the stories of some of those who made it without the aid of the National Lottery or its equivalent.

At least, however, this is one of the less harmful methods of bolstering national pride. A nation that wakes up on the morning after the Games has finished, and recalls how excited it got about dressage and golf, cannot take itself too seriously. And Britain has an endearing habit of adopting the athletes of other nations, such as Jesse Owens in the ’30s, Olga Korbut in the ’70s, and, more recently, Usain Bolt. But this is just a handful. Would that it was able to embrace a greater number of the world’s Olympians.

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