We were always told the Olympics would bring out the very best of Britain. And, right enough, as the threat of public sector strikes competes for space in the press with the knee-jerk capitalist urge to charge spectators for access to Box Hill during the road race, even a cynic would have to concede that the coming summer will show off the best of old and new.
And, of course, the press-manufactured scandal. I’m thinking of handshake-gate – the news that Team GB’s competitors are to be advised to avoid shaking hands with officials and competitors during the Games. This is to avoid infection – the vast majority of infectious diseases are passed by touching a contaminated surface, like a cyclist, and then touching your nose or mouth.
But of course, well, not shaking hands… um, not very, well, British. Good show old sport, an honour to have been beaten hollow by you. The BBC dug up an etiquette professional from Debrett’s to declare that not shaking hands was unacceptable. The Guardian ran an editorial about the joys of shaking hands. The Australian Olympic team described the advice as ‘embarrassing’. And so on.
But look at it this way: if you’ve been training for years, maybe decades, for one moment of one day, is wanting to do everything you can to avoid having a stinking cold so very unreasonable? If Debrett’s think it’s impossible to be polite without shaking hands, they’re even dafter than I thought. I’d have the whole team living in individual plastic bubbles for the last three weeks of the run in. (I think maybe I’d keep them in there for the competition as well – bubble triathlon particularly appeals. Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee churning the waters of the Serpentine with their mighty balls, then rolling off towards Hyde Park Corner like hamsters.)
Sport isn’t about being polite. Sport is about beating people. It’s about proving you’re better than them – maybe only in some small, aching artificial way, but better, which is more or less the definition of ill manners. A truly polite ‘road race’ would be a club run that rode at a speed carefully judged to avoid causing undue breathlessness in the slowest member of the party. And no one would even know who that was, because it wouldn’t be the kind of thing a gentleman would notice.
Same with other sports – polite weightlifting would involve everyone helping to lift the barbell, then all going out for tea. Polite fencing would consist of one of the protagonists saying, ‘No, you must take Elizabeth. I shall go to the colonies and try to forget.’ And catching the nest Qantas flight to Sydney.
Living in a bubble
But what about the issue of ‘sporting behavior?’ I hear you murmur. What about those occasions when riders wait for a rival who crashed, or who shipped his chain (eh, Alberto?), or who had to answer a call of nature? Or when someone gives a suffering opponent a drink, or even a quiet push up a hill?
Here is what ‘sporting behavior’ amounts to. It’s about making sure that your opponent has every advantage before you thrash him. It’s about eliminating every excuse he could possibly have used to give himself a crumb of comfort in his defeat. It’s about making it clear you’re beating him, not because he was unlucky, or even because he was at some sort of material disadvantage, but because he is a loser. And, after he’s lost, after his world has collapsed, the rules of sporting behavior insist on warm congratulations to his vanquisher. Well, isn’t that just the final kick in the crotch? A good time to offer a handshake, by the way. Make sure to wipe some snot onto your palm first.
How To… deal with changeable weather
In spring, one of the marks of the experienced cyclist is their ability to cope effortlessly with rapid changes in weather. When the temperature plummets, and the rain starts, the well-equipped rider will simply produce a lightweight rain cape or gilet from a jersey pocket. This is an ideal solution, apart from two things. First, the bump in your pocket doesn’t look cool. And most riders, faced with a choice between being warm and being cool, will take cool every time. Ironically, in this instance.
The other is that once you’ve put it on, whatever claims to breathability the fabric might make, you’ll start to generate your own microclimate in there. The build-up of sweat means that even after the shower passes, you can’t take it off again without freezing in the wind chill. An option often favoured by older hands is a plastic bag up the front of the jersey. Take your own bag. Beware of foraging for one in the verges. A friend who did so a couple of years ago got home to a hysterical reception from his dog. He still doesn’t know what had peed on the bag, but frankly the details didn’t seem important. The hard man’s way to keep warm is the hard man’s answer to everything – pedal harder. Works,too. Just long as you weren’t already going as fast as you could. Which, if you were fleeing before a cold front, you probably were.
Dear Doc, last week you were bemoaning your inability to predict the results of bike races. Might I perhaps point out that since your default state is one of miserable, Eeyore-ish pessimism, you will invariably be wrong-footed by any form of good news, or a good result for anyone. Perhaps if you adopted a more ‘glass-half-full’ position, your predictions would improve?
Harriet Field, via email
Harriet, yes, you’re right. I’m a miserable, gloomy, negative person. I have often thought about changing my outlook on life, but to be honest I don’t think I’d enjoy it. And I don’t think I could manage it anyway. And I’d probably lose my job. So if it’s all the same with you, I think I’ll stick to my ‘shining a ray of misery into a hopeful world’ approach.