Forget superstars - unheralded talents are the entertainers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am


You have your reasons for watching and I have mine. If you are tuning in to the Olympics to see NBA superstars Kobe Bryant and LeBron James win another gold then go for it. And if you can't wait to watch the likes of Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic or Venus and Serena Williams compete for medals on Wimbledon's hallowed courts then your day is almost here.

I certainly know what direction the cameras will be pointing during the 17 days of coverage and it will be mostly at Roger, Kobe and LeBron. And in four years we will be treated to multimillionaires like Rory McIlory, Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson doing their patriotic thing when golf returns to the Olympic fold in Rio de Janeiro.

The boys will be flying in to South America on their private jets to play in the XXXI Olympiad and for almost all of them the timing will be perfect. They will have just wrapped up the British Open and can get a couple of competitive rounds in before playing the PGA Championship a few weeks later.

Of course, four years is a lifetime so who knows what players will be representing their country. By 2018 Tiger will be 40 with dodgy knees and a spotty putter who will be hard-pressed to beat the youthful likes of Watson, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley in qualifying for the US team. But who really cares? I love golf and yet this whole thing means absolutely nothing to me. I figure I will be spending about as much time watching golf at the next Olympics as I will spend watching tennis this year.

We see these superstars all year long in a non-stop loop of highlights and endorsements. When the Olympics roll around, I enjoy watching athletes who train endlessly for four years in order to nail their one big chance in front of a global audience. That medal around their neck is their life's work, not merely a fashion accessory.

And as much as the Olympics is about sport and competition, it is also a unique and vital window into different cultures. People need to know that North and South Korea are not the same place because most watching actually don't. When London organisers mistakenly flashed the South Korean flag on a jumbo screen along with pictures of the North Korean players before a match with Colombia on Wednesday, the team from the north refused to take the field for an hour in protest.

The picture was classic as the coach sat in the stands, his players impassively at his side. There was no way one of them was going to lean over and say, 'It's not that a big deal coach, let's just go and play.' Well, it is that big a deal because they likely would have been shipped off to a gulag back home for their lack of jingoistic fervour. For 17 days out of every four years these are the stories we really need to see and hear.

I can't wait to see how India's female boxer and five-time world champion Mary Kom makes out in her first Olympic Games. Just ponder for a moment the notion that a woman, a mother of two, who grew up in the desperately impoverished Manipur region could win only the second gold medal ever for India while representing a country that is rife with gender and class inequality and do it, in all places, in a boxing ring.

You can't write a story like this and you can't write a tale like that of American swimmer Anthony Ervin. After winning gold in the 50-metre freestyle at the age of 19 at Sydney in 2000, Ervin quit swimming competitively three years later to play in a band and teach swimming to underprivileged inner city kids.

He sold his gold medal on eBay for US$17,000 and donated all the money to relief efforts for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because he was 'profoundly affected by the devastating loss of life and tried to raise as much money through my medal so I could donate it'. After a 12-year Olympic absence, Ervin is back and a medal favourite.

South African Roger Hudson would seem right at home in the affluent world of sailing. His father even sailed at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, but for the younger Hudson, his partner in the 470 class in London would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Asenathi Jim was born in 1992 in Red Hill, one of the black townships an hour outside of Cape Town and a full two years before the official end of apartheid. 'We are going to be a light in South Africa, a good combination in and out of the water,' said Jim.

These are just a few of the many compelling Olympian tales to hear and see. You might miss them though if you can't take your eyes off Roger, Kobe and LeBron. There is no crime in that because, like I said, you have your reasons for watching and I have mine.