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I love the Olympics. I know it’s “not done” in a lot of circles, but I love them. There’s something wonderful about watching people excel. People fulfilling their potential. And heartbreaking about watching people try, and fail. But even then it’s a good reminder of how fleeting and ephemeral perfection is. 

I was living in Sydney the night that we were awarded the right to host the 2000 Olympics. The cheering woke me. Everyone on the east coast knew that we’d won them, and four million people went to work the next day with sore throats. It was a wonderful feeling.

And I remember how utterly terrified I felt when they actually happened. So much pride at stake. So many ways things could go wrong. The Games was actually a pretty good reflection of most people’s fears. (BTW it was a superb programme. If you like your satire dry and very close to the bone, I highly recommend it!)  

I remember watching Cathy Freeman win the 400 m. Poor woman had an entire country tied to her feet. Mind you, there were also nineteen million sets of lungs breathing for her. If passion and hope and sheer collective willpower could win a race, then she would have won without needing to leave the blocks. 

I tried to capture that feeling in a poem once (as you do). Possibly the worst poem I’ve ever written. I think I’m beginning to understand what it would take to be able to do it justice. The language would have to be physical, not just use physical words. Structure would be incredibly important.

Maybe one day I’ll try again.

But it occurred to me how similar a good poem is to a top athlete. There’s the simple pleasure of seeing someone/thing where every muscle is honed for one purpose. Of a thing well-made. Crafted. Perfected. Purposeful. The muscularity of a really good line. The focus towards one particular goal. But there’s more to it than that. You can’t be a top athlete if you only take care of the muscles specific to your sport. Look at sprinters. It’s not just the legs that have to be strong. Or the heart. You need torso stability, to oppose the twisting force generated by each leg. (Think about it: if you push with only one leg – essentially what you’re doing each stride – you’ll tend to veer off in that direction. And early on in the race, the sprinters do tend to ping from side to side of their lanes.) So that means strong abdominals. And you need to use your arms too, to balance those forces. So that means work on biceps and triceps. And shoulders. And back. The body is a system, and you have to be aware of each part of the system and their interplay when you start enhancing one area. The same with a poem – it’s not enough just to pick the most evocative word for this line. You have to be aware of how that affects the rhythm, and the sound. The imagery. The whole thing. Will it make the next line seem weak? Pre-empt the ending? Offer a foothold for the next bit of imagery? Twist the poem in a new direction?

 

Wait. Does that make caffeine the equivalent of EPO? (Laudanum for anabolic steroids?)

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