There are a few elite runners I still want to do well at the Olympics – if I had to pick three, right now they’d be Asbel Kiprop, David Rudisha and Caster Semenya. At their best, they run ebulliently. And, when they run, they offer a vision of how different our entire world could be. There’s most at stake when Semenya runs (although her form, I know, has been atrocious this year). But both Kiprop and Rudisha represent a shifting border of conflict; an intrusion into some of the most prestigious parts of the Olympic sporting calendar of countries who were once tolerated only at the edges (the steeplechase, the men’s and women’s 10,000 metres).
Speaking of the women’s 10k, when Tirunesh Dibaba (above) won the gold on Friday, I couldn’t help but grind my head against the fact that when Live Aid took place she was just 6 weeks old. For all those images with which I grew up – of Ethiopia as the very epitome of African hunger and powerlessness – here was a woman showing that Ethiopians don’t need to be the object of someone’s else pity but can be the protagonists of athletics history.
The commentators on BBC rightly described her as a running “great”, the Guardian buried her triumph in a single column inch at page 13 of its next day’s coverage. And I doubt any of the other papers made more of her. In our debased media culture, the Olympics can only be communicated as a series of British triumphs or defeats – Dai Greene, scraping into the final of the 400m hurdles is a vastly more important story than the 6 athletes who qualified faster than him.
And this is one reason why I can’t just back the British atheletes, like we’re all supposed to do.
I know this must seem quixotic to some readers; I was born here. I have run in a number of UK-based atheletics clubs, and the only Olympian I ever ran with (now retired) was a sprinter in the UK athletics team. I read the papers, without meaning to, inevitably I know the names and histories of the British athletes better than any of their rivals. But David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson … I don’t laugh when I see these crooks integrated into the Olympic pageant, they make my body revolt that in my twenty years as a political activist our side has not done more to push them aside.
And sport does not exist in a walled city, immune from all that takes place all around. When Zara Phillips rides, I have a quarter of an inkling of the concentrated privilege that was poured into her upbringing. She will always be “their” athelete not “mine”. From the David-Brent managerialism of Charles van Commenee to the sexism of the Standard’s daily Olympic “hottie”, UK athletics is saturated in sporting politics which are utterly alien to me.