Despite everything, the Olympic Games are working their magic. No sporting event can match the Olympics for the pure celebration of sport. It manages to transmit the truth of that often doubted maxim that sport is not just about winning and losing. For many - indeed most - athletes the joy of sheer participation is just as real. They know this but spectators do not always appreciate it as they will their representatives to win.

But when they fall short at the Olympics - even at rugby - for most competitors the pleasure of participation will remain.

If our team could not win the sevens, what a joy it would be to see Fiji take the gold this morning. The first gold medal in any sport for that small country so many of us know well and have visited. Sevens rugby is to Fiji what the XVs are to New Zealand, the game in which they excel. The inclusion of sevens in the Olympics for the first time has given Fiji its chance to stand as champions on a world stage and none would deserve it more.

The Olympics lends its limelight to a great many sports that struggle to attract much attention at other times, especially women's sport. Even women's rugby lives only in the peripheral vision of rugby's following in New Zealand. Not this week, though. Much of the country gathered around televisions on Tuesday to watch the women's final and, by that time, players such as Portia Woodman and Kayla McAlister had become household names. Their loss to Australia was as painful as any test the All Blacks concede but accepted in this country with better grace. Australia were stronger; we have the silver to celebrate.


On Wednesday we awoke to our so-called "darkest day at the Olympics". Not only had the rugby team lost to Japan, two sculling pairs had gone and the Black Sticks had lost a second game. Worse, our greatest equestrian, Mark Todd, had dropped so many rails in the show ring that the team had fallen from gold medal contention to finish fourth. The veteran who, the night before, had given television viewers an emotional glimpse of how much the Olympics still mean to him, then demonstrated how the best of competitors deals with disappointment.

Todd was visibly deflated, so much shattered hope and hard work etched on his face, yet he was experienced enough to be philosophical. This was sport, anything can go wrong on the day. It was the worst time to ask any champion whether he would try again in four years but forgive us for asking. It was a tribute to Todd's extraordinary career that the question arose: have we just seen the end of it? If so, it was a fine way to finish, devastated but dignified, an example to all.

The great achievement of all Olympic Games is to capture attention for sports beyond the few each person might closely follow, beyond even the participation of national representatives. To watch these days is to risk being captivated by the skills, beauty, culture and competitive demands of games we do not ordinarily watch. Nationalities seem less important, the efforts and emotions the same the world over. It's the Olympic spirit.

12 Aug, 2016 11:00am
2 minutes to read