Games focus now where it should be - on sport

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am

The record-breaking performances of swimmer Michael Phelps and runner Usain Bolt could not have come at a better time. Their stunning victories coupled with China's gold rush have, at the halfway point, turned our Olympic Games focus where it should have been from day one: on sport. This is what the world's foremost sporting festival is obviously about, yet it is protests, human rights, terrorism and air pollution that have been grabbing headlines. Now that athletic heroism, the joy of winning and the heartbreak of losing are at centre stage, we can finally get into the spirit of the Games.

That goodwill feeling was all but absent until Bolt's lightning sprint in the 100 metres final on Saturday. The ease with which the Jamaican crossed the line and the celebration afterwards around the track at the National Stadium jolted the senses. All the deviating talk about issues tied to the mainland leadership was instantly forgotten. Phelps' winning of a record-setting eighth gold medal yesterday made sure that our attention was truly where it should be. Couple his achievement with that of Bolt's and amplify that with China's phenomenal rise up the international athletics tree, and the Beijing Olympics can at last be viewed in their proper perspective.

This is not to belittle the issues that until the weekend remained high in global discussion about China's hosting of the Games. The mainland's failure to live up to promises to markedly improve the rights of its people is disappointing. Efforts to protect the environment must be long term, not just for a single event when the world is watching. Media freedom is essential if China is to develop and thrive socially as well as economically. But there is a time and place for these discussions - and the Olympic Games is neither.

There is no doubt that the party atmosphere that usually accompanies the Olympics has been dampened by the security blanket in Beijing. Extremists have threatened to disrupt the event and their efforts have to be thwarted. A balance has to be struck, though; the intrusive attention being paid to visitors has taken the fun out of what should be an enjoyable occasion for all involved.

Whatever the criticism, there is no denying that the facilities, organisation and logistics are top class. Only the best of the best is acceptable for the Olympics. With the addition of the leading athletes in the world at their chosen disciplines, a veritable sporting feast is on offer. Little wonder, then, that records are tumbling.

In keeping with expectations, Hong Kong's hosting of the equestrian events has so far been outstanding. We have the Hong Kong Jockey Club to thank for this. Spectators may not always have had a firm grasp of the finer points of events such as dressage, but it is clear that a show of which we can be proud is under way.

Hong Kong has not fared well on the sports field, but the achievements of mainland athletes have more than made up for our disappointment. All the sporting programmes that China has invested in are paying dividends in medals. From traditional favourites badminton, table tennis, diving and gymnastics to new focus sports such as rowing, the tally is mounting at an unexpected rate. The Olympics are about athletic ability and endeavour. It is the world's biggest sporting stage. Athletes finely tune their bodies for the occasion to take on the best in the world and perhaps lay claim to a medal, preferably gold, and maybe a record. They are in Beijing not for politics or human rights or any of the other reasons that have drawn our focus from their efforts.

This is a celebration of sport. The skills required by athletes to be of an international standard are to be revered. We cannot appreciate their efforts or truly revel in the spirit of the Olympics, if our minds are elsewhere. There is time for those other matters of concern about China's rise when the Games are finished. Now, let's give the sportsmen and women our full attention.