Tokyo Olympics 2020: Steve Braunias – in praise of armchair critics


Isn’t this dreadful weather we’re having! Mad storms, crazy winds, insane rains! All we can do is to stay sane and stay inside, keep warm, have a bag of potato chips with sour cream and chives dip at hand, and provide really expert analysis of high-quality performance at the Tokyo Olympics.

It’s not easy being an armchair critic. Sometimes you have to get out of your armchair. You might miss something. The tension is generally kind of bearable and yet it makes you realise that like life itself, Olympic sports are often long, exhausting, and seldom any fun – but you never know when something might happen. Velodrome cycling is very boring indeed and yet who will ever forget that sensational moment on Monday when an Australian fell off his bike. The handlebars snapped. He went flying. Sometimes it’s only when something goes wrong that we know we are truly alive, and better off watching someone come off their bike at speed than experience it, especially if they’re an Australian.

It doesn’t take long to become an expert analyst of sports that you might hitherto never have shown the slightest bit of interest in. All across the nation, New Zealanders are forming shrewd opinions of things like beach volleyball. America played Cuba on Monday. The American bikinis were blue and the Cuban bikinis were red. Those red ones go fast, and anyone who watched could see that the Cubans had more speed and grace than their American opponents, who were left clawing at sand time and time again, swiping where the ball wasn’t, digging holes with their hands and probably wanting to disappear inside them.

Gymnastics and diving are made for slow motion. The shot-put and discus, less so; spheres in flight don’t really have a lot of character. But it’s been incredible to watch the tumble and swoop of gymnasts in flight, the toss and turn of divers in the air. Both sports exist because of bars and boards, but the bars and boards are mere surfaces. The glory is all aerial. People flying, without wings or shoes, making gravity look like an idea whose time has passed.

“Why are so many competitors performing well below their best?”, asked a commentator at the women’s uneven bars gymnastics. “What’s contributing to that?” They were good questions, and thousands of watching Kiwis were coming up with a range of uninformed answers off the top of their heads. Fan Yilin, the 2015 uneven bars world champion, fell backwards when she landed. “There’s a full point taken off for that,” said the commentator, but we knew that. An armchair critic always knows the score.

But we are experts second, and patriots first. We were there for Laurel Hubbard. We put aside whatever latest science on male performance and stats on testosterone to watch her go at it with really big weights. She didn’t make it. That was a sad moment but she responded with a dignity and courage that surprised no one. She looks like a good sort. She looks like what she is: a proud Kiwi who gave it her best shot.

Armchair critics have performed with no less vigour. We all deserve a medal for our commitment and our brilliant assessments these past two weeks. We should all take a bow – and then sit back down. To be an armchair critic is to always, always rest on our laurels.

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