12 August 2008

Battles of Adlington, Cooke and Murray a glorious diversion

Welcome to The Truman Show, where only the sweat, joy and disappointment are real. A week sealed within the Olympic bubble would drive even the dumbest of Jim Carreys to revolt. But then Nicole Cooke pedalled to Gold, Rebecca Adlington swam there –  and Andy Murray expired.

The phoney war of endless “I’m in great shape” press conferences, and upbeat bulletins which climaxed with the gigantism of the opening ceremony is now well and truly over. What matters is what happens on the road, in the pool, or on the court.

In that 1998 Hollywood movie, the Jim Carrey character was sealed into an all-smiles TV soap opera world from which there could be no escape. Before the action began here all of us started to fret about the heat and dust and harsher worries hidden outside the air-conditioning. But after the last two days, this new reality will do.

For Nicole Cooke must come to us from another planet, not just from Wick in West Wales. The television pictures could never get near quite how hellish a day it was on Sunday as she battled through driving rain on her epic five-hour journey to the Great Wall and Olympic glory.

Rebecca Adlington was rather different, not just because of the youthful wonderment of her but because of the way she came through from seventh place on the final turn. But win she did, the tears streamed down the cheeks of our own sainted Anita Lonsbrough and, for a Brit, the centre of the Olympic bubble was the very best place to be.

For now we had a golden cushion to make up for things like Craig Fallon’s miserable showing in the judo on Saturday and for some of the inevitable disappointments which were bound to follow. It meant that there was only a shrug as the giddying medal hopes for little Tom Daley splashed out with eighth out of eight reality.

That cushion was soon needed again in the astonishing state-of-the-art tennis courts, where we did not get the new Murray; we got the old one.

Coasting along in the first set he duly broke Taiwan’s Lu Yen-Hsun in the sixth game as a freshly ranked world No 6 should to someone listed 71 places below him. Even when Mr Lu broke back, Andy had two set points at 6-5 but then suddenly reverted to the worst toe-trailing, roaring, self-pitying, “world is against me” traits of “Kevin the Teenager” we thought he had shelved along with the spots and skinny physique.

What prompted this is a puzzle sports psychologists could have fun with for years. But here right in front of us Murray was disintegrating by the minute. The towel was wrong, the British Olympic shirt was wrong (I must say it did look a bit tight), his knee was wrong and when rain came with him abjectly 0-2 down to Lu in the second set, the court was so wrong that he picked up his bags and went to walk off only to be stopped and brought back to sit under an umbrella whilst everyone including the ball boys and the umpire comically took the players’ white towels and wiped the lines dry.

Everyone knows that in tennis these demises can be temporary. In the morning, we had watched Rafa himself lose a sweat-soaked second set to a spiky-faced Italian called Potito Starace before pulling himself together and putting the gallant Potito back in his place. But here, whenever Murray seemed to have got a super heavy serve together or one of those wrong-footing rallies, he lapsed back into Kevin land. He berated himself, hung his head, turned and beseeched Team Murray in the stands for inspiration. But it would not come.

Five days ago he had charmed us all with his enjoyment of the Olympics and his and brother Jamie’s unhesitating wish to be part of the parade.

Now the furies were asking us to hate him, even to call him something close to a quitter. It would not have happened in The Truman Show. So this must be reality after all.

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