I’ve never quite understood people who call themselves sports fans. While I certainly can understand the appeal of specific sports, my way into a sport tends to be via specific teams or athletes, not out of a blanket fascination with the sport itself. And yet, the Olympics are different. Because of our geographical and cultural advantages, Norwegians from childhood are taught that the Winter Olympics are the ones you should be really excited about, and I was no exception. In my youth, I watched countless hours of Olympic cross country skiing, alpine skiing, biathlon, speed skating, Nordic combined, ski jumping and whatever else was on. At some point, however, I believe it was in time for the 2006 Turin Olympics, I had tired of most winter sports. These days, alpine skiing and ski jump are the only winter sports I might actually watch if I happen to catch them on TV.
If my youthful fascination with the Winter Olympics taught me anything, however, it is that when it comes to this kind of event, there’s not necessarily any shame in taking in as much as you can without having a personal loyalty angle to get you hooked. Thus, while I have not binged per se on the soon-to-be-finished London games, I have mixed my regular sports menu of soccer, handball, track and field and tennis with several sports I know next to nothing about (like gymnastics, swimming, table tennis, triathlon), and even some I downright dislike, such as boxing, field hockey (don’t ask) and beach volleyball. Instead of checking my TV listings to see when a particular event is on, I have taken some unexpected pleasure in just letting myself go with the flow and give my attention to whatever marginal sport happened to be up next.
All this is nothing but a wordy attempt to preview my watching of the men’s 10 meters platform diving final tonight. Diving, you see, is this rare sport where, for these Olympics, my inclination to give unfamiliar sports a chance overlaps with my usual wish to have a specific team or athlete to root for. As you may have gleaned from my strained explanation of my “pleasure watching” in the previous paragraph, I mostly like to watch sports where I have a relatively solid grasp of their rules and peculiarities, and maybe even know a little bit about the state of play in advance. But I have to admit that in the case of diving, I started watching yesterday’s preliminaries for one reason only: The British diver Tom Daley, an 18-year old wonderboy and prospective gold medalist who made a name for himself by qualifying for the final in the 2008 Beijing Olympics at age 14, and winning the European Championships the following year. Or, to put the point more bluntly: Because Tom Daley is fucking gorgeous.
I went into my diving experiment with a vague sense that it made for a somewhat odd television sport. The dive goes by so fast that in real time an untrained viewer such as myself has very few indicators to look for, besides how the diver hits the water, to determine whether it’s bad, good or great. As I got a little more used to it, however, it stopped bothering me that I had to wait for a replay to get a full assessment, and after a while I could even differentiate slightly between a bad and a great dive. And it turned out that diving has a built-in suspense that I did not anticipate. Over the course of six rounds, you start to understand the potential consequences if a diver is slightly off his game for even one round, and how much can change from one round to the next.
The preliminaries was a rewarding experience, both as a training ground of sorts for an untrained TV spectator, and as a guy looking for, ehhm, some pleasing visuals. Besides introducing me to the incredibly talented Chinese duo of Qiu and Lin, I was fascinated by how advance favorites like Daley and American David Boudia barely scraped by; Daley coming in at number fifteen, and Boudia taking the final spot in the semi-final, at number eighteen. On that other front, I remember some random Internet commenter saying early in the games that, for some reason he thought badminton “the gayest sport in the world.” He didn’t mean that as a compliment, nor he explain his “reasoning”, but if we accept his premise I’d like to nominate diving for a spot in the top three. Not to sound even more shallow than I usually do in this space, but wow, diving really is a treasure trove if you appreciate the male physique. Minimally clad world class athletes performing a sport that’s actually watchable on its own terms (as opposed to, say, beach volleyball)? Yup, I’m in. Of the beautiful divers I would have loved to see in the final but who did not make the cut, I have to mention three in particular; Mexican Germán Sanchez Sanchez (left), a silver medalist in platform synchro competition; and Australians Matthew Mitcham, a 2008 gold medalist; and James Connor (right). From the final, I’d mention Martin Wolfram (Germany), Ivan Garcia Navarro (Mexico) and Nicholas McCrory (U.S.)
His shaky performance in the preliminaries had made me nervous on Daley’s behalf (I didn’t see the semi-final), and when he seemed to miss his mark in the first round, I thought he had buckled under the tremendous pressure of a demanding home crowd. As it turned out, he was given a re-dive due to being distracted by flashes in the arena, and from there on in, he was nearly flawless. He in fact led the pack going into the sixth round, but was eclipsed by Qui and the eventual winner, David Boudia. To see Tom, as I now, along with millions of Brits feel entitled to call him, finally let his guard down and revealed ecstatic joy over his bronze, was a truly moving moment. The Olympics can be cruel, as athletes who have worked relentlessly toward this particular event risk seeing their effort scuppered by bad luck, moody judges or whatever else, but the main reason Tom Daley delivered is that he’s simply a great diver.
And a beautiful one, too.