UNLESS you are an Olympic hopeful, a significant date might have passed you by this summer. On July 24th, it was two years to go until the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Olympic athletes, by necessity, live their lives in four-year cycles, their every waking minute now driven by the countdown to Tokyo 2020. Most with serious medal potential will know not just the exact date of their competition, but the exact time. The Olympic clock works backwards from then.
I remember speaking to the four-times Olympic champion, Matthew Pinsent, several months before his final Olympics in 2004. He showed me his diary, every page marked out with periods for training, racing and resting, weekdays and weekends. Then he flicked a page marked ‘Olympic final’ and there was nothing, just blank space. “This is where my life ends,” he said. “I have no idea what I’m going to be doing.”
Pinsent, of course, won his fourth gold by a whisker, cried uncontrollably on the Olympic podium and headed into a new career with the BBC. His diary will be full again now, bursting with the usual paraphernalia of civilian life.
But reaching the halfway point in their journey quickens the pulse of all potential Olympians. Time will begin to accelerate for the organisers too. This promises to be a very different Games, more youthful, more modern, more hip. A host of new sports have been added to the schedule for Tokyo including climbing, surfing, karate and skateboarding. Baseball and softball are back on the list too, but – unless the French develop a sudden passion for American sport – will probably not survive to Paris in 2024.
In terms of Olympic sports, I am a traditionalist. Only one question needs to be asked of a potential Olympic sport: would the Olympics be its pinnacle? The answer for both tennis and golf is still ‘no’ and therefore I have never regarded them as proper Olympic sports. When there was a real threat to drop wrestling from the Olympic programme, I, along with a surprising number of other supporters, was outraged, not because I love Greco-Roman wrestling – which is generally quite dull – but because this was one of the few surviving Olympic sports that traced its roots directly back to the original Games on Mount Olympus. So robust was the outcry that the International Olympic Committee had no choice but to reinstate the sport on the roster for the 2020 Games where, hopefully, it will stay happily unnoticed for another 100 years.
The future relevance of the Olympics certainly depends on attracting a younger audience. Even the mega-sporting events have to move with the times. Whether skateboarding and surfing is the way to go is another matter. Supporters can rightly point to the success of the new extreme sports in the winter Games; slopestyle and snowboarding have usurped the traditional alpine skiing disciplines as the central attraction. They are more dangerous and have greater street credibility.
Most of the successful GB squad at the last Games in South Korea were brought up on dry ski slopes in northern towns like Halifax and Sheffield. Billy Morgan, the bronze medallist, learnt to snowboard in Southampton, which is not exactly St Moritz even in midwinter. The new breed of flop-haired bobble-hatted Olympians have brought a refreshing, almost old-fashioned, spirit to Olympic competition, happily applauding rivals and not letting the quest for Olympic glory – and considerable wealth - ruin their communal passion for the sport. They have been the stars of the show in the last two Games.
Of all the new summer sports, the most interesting and potentially exciting is climbing. Have a look on YouTube at the world speed climbing record set by Reza Alipour of Iran last year. It will only take you 5.48 seconds to watch it and I guarantee you that the morning after the Olympic speed event, there will be only one topic of conversation round the office water cooler. The speed event is only one element in the climbing triathlon, which also includes the disciplines of lead climbing and bouldering. You can take or leave skateboarding, surfing and karate, but climbing has the potential to be a proper Olympic sport.
It also helps that in Shauna Coxsey, Britain has a potential gold medallist. Coxsey, who lives and trains in Sheffield, practises by hanging from the door frame by her fingertips with 20kg weights strapped to her waist. She has the grip of a vice and the mind of a chess player. She, for one, will be counting down the days to Tokyo.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of 7Dnews.