A viewers’ guide to the Olympics

No matter how many Olympics we reset our body-clocks to watch as much in their entirety as possible, the best advice is the one we’ve probably got the first time around as kids: make sure to spend some hours of these precious days watching a sport you knew nothing, or not much, about.

In this file photo Miguel Lucas of Portugal (left) tackles Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand during the World Rugby Sevens Series in Sydney. Rugby returns to the Olympics for the first time in 92 years with an abbreviated seven-player version favoured for Rio over the traditional 15-a-side game.   -  AP

I like to think of the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics as a summons to all of humanity to put aside our everyday concerns for a few weeks and take stock of human endeavour, a four-yearly reckoning of the state of our world and of ourselves. Every spectator brings — and, in turn, takes away — something unique, and the fact that the experiences of no two persons may completely overlap is a source of endless fascination.

Covering the Beijing Olympics eight years ago, I would be taken out of my stride every so often as I roamed the city from one competition to another to see how others watched. Some media groups had transported entire bureaus to the Media Centre, some countries had what appeared to be just the lone reporter present, the filing of reports went on 24x7 as journalists tracked events on local time but filed to deadlines back home.

But no matter how many Olympics we reset our body-clocks to watch as much in their entirety as possible, the best advice is the one we’ve probably got the first time around as kids: make sure to spend some hours of these precious days watching a sport you knew nothing, or not much, about. It helps to have at one’s elbow a guide to the rules of the sport, and the discipline’s iterations in Olympics past. And with a Rio de Janeiro edition of David Wallechinsky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics not available this year, I was relieved to chance upon an updated edition of How to Watch the Olympics by David Goldblatt and Johnny Acton.

In their introduction, they spell out a five-point plan for how to watch the Olympics. One, figure out the question, “why watch any given sport?” Why, for instance, would you watch rugby sevens? It debuts at the Rio Games (15-a-side rugby was last at the Olympics in 1924), and the authors reassure that it’s “a lot easier to grasp” than the older version. Basically: “If you want non-stop action, where the outcome can be changed in an instant by a piece of breathtaking athleticism or a bone-crunching tackle, rugby sevens is for you.” I’ll certainly take in a game or two, no matter how sleep-deprived it’ll leave me, but it may take many more Summer Games for me to figure out why anybody would watch synchronised swimming.

The second point is to get a recap of “the story of a sport”. And there is nothing to beat, for pure drama, the story of table tennis. The authors cite the theory that it was invented by British officers in India, but table tennis history gets truly engrossing in the mid-twentieth century with the high-stakes China-Japan rivalry (read Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World by Nicholas Griffin to be kept on the edge of your chair). Now, of course, all table tennis medals are China’s to lose, with the country’s domination near unbreakable.

Third, say Goldblatt and Acton, grasp the “basics” of a sport. No Olympics experience is complete without watching diving, but for most of us the appreciation is generally based on pure awe. Stick figures presented in the book — with variations bound to be available elsewhere — are a good starting point to try to figure out, with the aid of replays, why a dive is adjudged well or not. It doesn’t help us laypersons, of course, to be reminded by the authors that it took almost thirty years for the Europeans and North Americans to come to agreement on what is a good dive!

Fourth, and related, is to understand the “finer points” of the sport. Indoor handball has been an Olympic sport since the 1970s, and this year I finally hope to take in an entire game. After all, we are told that “Denmark comes to a standstill” during women’s handball games and it may aid the viewing experience to be told that “following a game is partly about sensing the momentum of scoring and the balance of opportunities taken and missed over time, rather than the impact of any single goal.”

Lastly, and my favourite pastime in the intervening years between two Summer Games, is to track that history of the sport at the Olympics. For sheer engagement, there is nothing as rewarding as track, and it is impossible, for instance, to truly embrace the men’s 200m sprint without knowing about the 1968 Black Power Salute as well as Michael Johnson and then Usain Bolt’s records. Or to follow the Indian hockey team at Rio without the back-story about India’s exploits pre-1947 that scared the British about the prospect of losing to a colony, so that they resisted fielding a team.

As C. L. R. James may have said, what do they know of the Olympics who only the Olympics know?