Records tumble, victories accumulate, and Britain’s medal tally grows inexorably. Last weekend saw some fantastic Olympic medal wins by Team GB: no wonder so many men are crying. It seems it really is okay to cry these days, even if you’re a bloke. But I’m not convinced it’s acceptable for all of us: to justify such apparent weakness, you’d better make sure you’ve beaten the rest of the world, or nearly all of it, first!
The Olympics are an educationist’s dream. Kids returning to school in September will be regaled by endless uplifting assembly talks by people like me, citing one example after another of achievement of high goals, of how Olympic success is achieved, until they’re sick of them.
Just as the TV commentators love to talk about the long, hard road to success of a world-beating athlete such as Mo Farah, of gymnast Louis Smith’s battles with his own demons, of Andy Murray’s path to this year’s triumphs, so teachers will draw endless moral lessons to pass on. Who can blame them? They’re great examples for the young.
Thus, at the end of Sunday night’s epic tennis final, we witnessed British gold medallist Andy Murray and his heroic Argentinian opponent Juan Del Potro hanging on each other’s necks and blubbing. Mind you, I wonder if some of that emotion was sheer relief at finally concluding that four-hour slogfest on an unbelievably slow court.
Some tears we’ve observed so far have stemmed from disappointment: Louis Smith was in gold medal position on the pommel horse until his teammate Max Whitlock pipped him. Delighted for Max – cruel for Louis. But it was good to see the Brazilian gymnasts who gained silver and bronze behind Whitlock on the floor weeping – almost helpless, indeed – for sheer joy.
Indeed the delight of athletes at winning Olympic silver or bronze, even if they miss the top spot, has been another pleasure of the Rio Olympics. Returning after a couple of years out to become a mother, British athletic icon Jessica Ennis-Hill professed herself satisfied with her silver, not for a moment grudging the gold to the Belgian athlete who beat her in all the filed events (though not, interestingly, on the track). Similarly, so-called veteran rower Katherine Grainger was similarly ecstatic to return to the Olympics and come second.
Of course they went out determined to win: it’s the only way. These athletes are such great role models precisely because in their training and ultimate achievement there is none of the narcissism we see in overpaid, pampered professional footballers. Olympians, whatever their discipline, have undergone gruelling training and, as some tearful victors have confessed, missed their families, parents, sweethearts or children, as they have given their all to the preparation.
Many along the way have suffered disappointment, injury or other frustrations, and have won through. They don’t look for excuses. Their countless examples of grit and resilience are outstanding. And they appreciate the honour of achieving even Olympic Silver or Bronze.
Then there is the challenge simply of coping in that strange tropical environment (Rio is very different from training in Dagenham or Sheffield), battling against superb opposition and confronting one’s own demons to reach that podium spot. Luck plays a part: but, as I tell my students endlessly (to their despair), we make our own luck by being supremely prepared and employing the necessary sheer guts and determination when the going gets tough.
When the going gets tough, of course, the tough get going: it’s a cliché and a truism – but is undeniable.
So it’s fine by me if these hugely tough men and women want to cry, even while being interviewed for the world’s television: because they can’t do it entirely through cold, calculated preparation and training. They, and their own personal belief and ambition, form the background: but at the moment of truth the extra, essential ingredient is above all (surely the driving force behind the Olympics) that enormous pride in representing one’s country, while carrying the significant burden of its wishes and hopes. Witness the pride with which victorious athletes wrap themselves in their country’s flag. Their lachrymose lap of honour brings a sympathetic tear to the eye of this hardened old cynic, too.
So go on, guys. It really is okay to cry. If you’ve put all that work in, won all those battles and beaten the rest of the world, you’ve earned the right to weep all you want. I’ll probably sob along with you.