Sunday, August 24, 2008


Having learned to enjoy poker - in mobile phone videogame form - in an earlier episode, I have since progressed. First to the DS version of World Series Of Poker 2008 (an excellent poker game by the way, with a rather superfluous but charming betting mechanic: you can toss your chips in with a cavalier stroke of the stylus), then to online poker, with actual people in it.

I have blethered on about my lack of a competitive streak before but poker is not quite the same thing. This is more of a psychological battle, a contest of intelligence, strategy, pattern analysis, guile and balls - none of this who's-got-the-best-genes 100 metres nonsense. This is real competition, for real men with stubble and hangovers. And women. Also with hangovers, possibly. And stubble, if they are not slaves to Veet. I don't judge. Any woman who can strike a match off her calf is fine by me.

I've forgotten what I was talking about. Oh yes, poker. Well, having been playing online at Poker Room (they have a Java client that works on my Linux box, bless them) for about three weeks now I have discovered I have a bit of a knack for this. Something about my particular brand of obsessive perfectionism lends itself to Texas Hold'Em, well enough that I managed to win my first tourney today. Competitive or not, there's something about beating 1,116 people at cards that cannot help but bolster the ego. Besides, it's nice to have a mental equivalent to running, something to keep my brain exercised. Sudoku is just tedious.

The Olympics have been a mixed bag, in my opinion. Yes, we did well getting lots of medals and that's undeniably good, but athletics in particular seems to have had a bad time of it. Jess Ennis failing to make it, Kelly Sotherton finishing fifth (and being proved absolutely right in her assertion that Liudmyla Blonska couldn't be trusted), that shocking cockup in the men's 4x100 relay, Lisa Dobriskey's brave but misjudged fourth place in the 1500, Mo Farah's failure to qualify... there've been a lot of little mistakes and bad-luck moments, nothing you could really blame anyone for (and, with the exception of Tom Daley's spiteful diving partner, the teams have been decent enough not to blame individuals) but still a crushing disappointment for Team GB.

It's a shame some commentators have chosen to be so scathing about the athletes themselves, when they clearly ran and jumped and worked their hearts out: sometimes it just doesn't happen on the day. That's sport. They tried damned hard, and trying counts, even if it doesn't always get the bling: if you feel short-changed then maybe you should run the damn race yourself.

So, with this in mind, these are my highlights of the Olympics, in ascending order.

5. Chris Hoy winning - well, everything really. Even better than his medalling was Dutch cyclist Theo Bos' comment "it's like he has swallowed a motorbike".

4. Rebecca Adlington's two swimming gold medals. The mayor of her home town, Mansfield, promised her a pair of Jimmy Choos if she brought back gold: a testament to the power footwear has over women.

3. Tia Hellebaut's winning high jump for Belgium. When I was in school it was generally agreed that spectacle wearers could never be athletes: she won high-jump gold with her glasses on. An inspiration for lifelong myopics like myself.

2. Bryony Shaw going completely to pieces when she won the bronze for the RS:X - anyone doubting the sheer commitment of British athletes should watch that, as should any athletes 'disappointed with silver'. Naming no names, but there's a reason this list features few men.

1. The women's marathon. Liz Yelling took a bad fall and possibly cracked a rib - she had to be hospitalised at the end - but still finished 26th. Paula Radcliffe ran on a broken leg and still finished 23rd. Mara Yamauchi made it in sixth, the best performance by a British woman in the Olympic marathon. None of these three won a medal but all of them showed just how determined, proud and tough we can be. I stayed up all night to watch it and was proud to be British as the sun rose.

Incidentally, the winner of the marathon was Constantina Tomescu, who is 38. You don't need to be a kid to be an athlete, at least not in distance running, and Paula will be 38 in 2012. As I write the men's marathon is well under way, with Dan Robinson as our only entrant. Hard to say why we seem to skimp on male distance runners when our women are so competitive... either way, Dan took up running only a decade ago, to lose weight: the fact that he's Olympic standard today at the age of 33 is a hell of an achievement in itself.

I ran a 10K training run on Thursday, my first for a few weeks for various reasons. It was hard going and I was out of condition, but I thought of Liz and Paula and Dan and Mo and Kelly and Heather and Mara and Lisa and Craig and Marlon and Germaine and all the rest of them out there defending Britain's honour, winning, losing, trying, and put my head down and gritted my teeth and finished within a couple of minutes of my PR. I'm not an Olympian but I am an athlete, and as long as I pour my heart and soul and sweat and commitment into it I am brother to them all.

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