Tokyo’s Olympics feel more special than ever – and I pity anyone who’d rather they hadn’t happened

High jump joint gold medallists Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi. From:

It has been a privilege to witness the return of three huge tournaments – the Euros, Wimbledon, and the Tokyo Olympics – that Covid-19 stole from the sporting calendar of July 2020. It’s a signal that, while the pandemic seems far from fading, its spread is at least slowing, muzzled by the efficacy of vaccine science. I was lucky enough to attend the last ever “Manic Monday” at Wimbledon which, thanks to mass testing, operated at 75% and later full capacity. For the first time since Norwich City’s glorious triumph over Spurs, on penalties, in the 5th round of the FA Cup on Wednesday 4th March 2020, I enjoyed live sport, in person. It was at once normal, yet totally strange and humbling to live every emotion again with thousands of others. As Ons Jabeur raised her arms aloft to celebrate victory over Iga Swiatek, thus becoming Tunisia’s first ever Grand Slam quarterfinalist, the Court Two crowd stood as one and, without warning, my jaw softened, and I found myself on the verge of blubbering. Later that week, it was in the more alcohol-fuelled but no less novel setting of a London sports bar that I celebrated England’s men defeating Denmark to reach their first major football final since 1966. No matter that the dream run ended on penalties that Sunday. The pain of defeat melted into a shared sense of national pride; a reflection on four weeks of much-needed positivity; and a wellspring of support for the three young penalty-takers – Rashford, Sancho and Saka – who faced such disgusting racial abuse in the aftermath of the final. The England team created a ‘balloon of hope’ which was not so much ‘popped’, to use the words of their cherished manager Gareth Southgate, but launched in unison with a sea of inflatables which represent the diverting power of sport in such difficult times. Wimbledon and the Euros lay the groundwork for the largest, most entertaining, and yet for many, most contentious spectacle of them all: the Tokyo Olympic Games.

From the muted display of the opening ceremony on 23rd July, it was clear that this would be a very different Olympics, grappling with the question of whether it should be held at all. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in concert with Yoshihide Suga’s government, were adamant after last year’s delay that they must hold the games with whatever protocols are necessary, to ‘prove that humanity has defeated the coronavirus’. But polls suggest that 80% of Japanese opposed holding a likely super-spreader event. Vaccination rates also lag in the country; Japan is bottom among OECD, high-income nations due to geographical supply issues. And now, with 105,000 athletes, officials and associated staff descended on Tokyo for the Games, infection rates are beginning to climb. Amid the stunning drone display that lit up an empty Olympic stadium on that opening night, one could glimpse a rare sight for Japan: the beacons of protestors.

Tokyo has been caught in an unenviable position. All Olympic bids, London included, face their share of opposition from locals subjected to disruption, bureaucratic scandals and budget overruns. Tokyo’s bid in 2012 never gained majority support from its residents and has cost $15.4 billion – double initial estimates – for facilities now closed to the public. But with such investment, and the input of national broadcasters, sponsors and the IOC, cancellation was unconscionable. Whatever you think it says about our misplaced global priorities, the reality is that the Olympics are a made-for-television event. Besides, we shouldn’t forget the impact of a further delay on the dreams of thousands of athletes attempting to peak for this event after a five-year wait since Rio. Most competitors view the chance to win a medal for their country at the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of their career, if not their life. Without that chance, in many nations, future investment in their sport is at risk; the platform they gain to inspire future generations lies beyond reach. I’m not usually a romantic idealist, and maybe it’s selfish: but in this context, I’d suggest that prioritising the Tokyo Games, in whatever suboptimal, Covid-secure setting, has made a positive difference to millions of lives at an opportune global moment.

From the safety of my sofa, I’ve savoured this thrilling Olympic Games. It’s always exciting to rediscover sports like judo or triathlon that I’ve probably not seen since 2016. There’s a shared thrill at watching the greatest athletes achieve impossible feats, not least in CB1 where my housemate and I set up every morning to multitask work with our important armchair commentary duties. Whether it’s trying to understand the unforgiving rules of taekwondo, or biting my nails for a hockey shootout, there’s never a dull moment. We’ve become experts in gymnastics; I love the infectious, cheeky enthusiasm of Britain’s Gadirova twins and, of course, the quiet determination of six-time Olympic medallist Max Whitlock. I’m still recovering from the drama of today’s show jumping finals and, juxtaposing this with the baffling sight of the German horse dancing to a La La Land medley in the dressage, I’ve come away in awe at the versatility of equestrianism. The swimming has been exceptional, with records routinely smashed and a British squad anchored by the powerhouse of Adam Peaty bringing in a record medal haul. But perhaps my favourite moment came yesterday in the athletics where, as on London 2012’s “Super Saturday”, the simultaneous climaxes of multiple disciplines create the greatest memories. In the women’s triple jump, the vivacious Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas nailed a new world record on her last attempt, while in the men’s high jump competition, Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim (with glasses from the future) and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi – tied and faced with a jump off – decided to share gold. They fell into each other’s arms; Tamberi, who broke his ankle just days before the Rio Games and is perhaps Italy’s most charismatic man, brought life to the cavernous arena where his dream had just become reality.

Many journalists and Twitterati have slated the BBC’s coverage of the Games, from its green-screened Japanese pagoda studio (in Salford) to the dual-channel setup that has augured some puzzling editorial decisions. Indeed, the broadcaster has scaled back from its wall-to-wall coverage of London and Rio after the IOC sold most UK television rights to the pay-to-view channel Discovery; they in turn sub-licensed two feeds to the BBC. Sadly, this casts doubt on the future ability of public service broadcasters to compete with pay-to-view networks, but the deal does guarantee some free-to-air coverage of the 2022 Beijing and 2024 Paris Games. And the result is an inevitable sidelining of more niche sports, without British interest, which rely on Olympic coverage for exposure.

The BBC’s priorities have come in for particular criticism by sportswriter Jonathan Liew, who writes in the New Statesman that our Team GB fervour is ‘a logical extension of the empty, mechanical nationalism that seems to have gripped this country over the past decade’. This is a spectacularly bad take from a Guardian columnist who clearly takes his publication’s editorial line that national pride is poisonous. Is it truly noteworthy, let alone disagreeable, that a British broadcaster with two feeds prioritises British medal hopes, especially since the nation – transformed by National Lottery funding – has come to punch above its weight internationally? (For more on this, I highly recommend the three-part iPlayer series Gold Rush: Our Race to Olympic Glory, which charts Team GB’s journey from a nadir at Atlanta 1996 to London 2012.) I appreciate the meticulous curation of coverage by some of our most experienced sporting journalists like Hazel Irvine and Clare Balding. I have never felt that they’ve missed a compelling non-British moment; if anything, the opposite occurred in the gymnastics team event, when Team GB (clearly unexpectedly) won a bronze medal without featuring in the main analysis. In recent days, morning coverage has focused on track and field events with no British interest; if what Liew says is true, Gabby Logan, Denise Lewis and Michael Johnson would be out of a job. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I prefer a choice of two streams over thirty.

Naturally, the quality of broadcasting has not been the sole source of in-games controversy or tragedy. This has ranged from cock-up – the Polish swimming team selecting too many athletes, meaning six were sent home – to the miserable spectre of positive Covid tests for the likes of American world pole vault champion Sam Kendricks. I was glad to see very little of the men’s tennis, after another unsportsmanlike temper tantrum from Novak Djokovic and a gold medal for alleged abuser Alexander Zverev. One of the major talking points of week one was the withdrawal of US gymnastics legend Simone Biles from the team competition and several individual finals for mental health reasons, specifically the “twisties” which – like “yips” in golf or snooker – can require the total re-training of a routine. Of course, in gymnastics, attempting any skill in the air without total conviction on how you’re going to land can be dangerous, if not fatal. Biles has bravely initiated a vital conversation at the nexus of mental health and the pressure of elite sport. Can Olympians cope with the strain they routinely face, and do they feel comfortable to cite mental strain as a reason for a break, like they would a physical ailment? With any luck, the intervention of a certain self-aggrandizing, erstwhile breakfast TV presenter will force more neutrals to engage with this issue, to the benefit of Biles, Naomi Osaka, Adam Peaty and others now speaking out about their mental difficulties. We saw in the example of Jade Jones, defending Olympic taekwondo champion beaten in her second round, how difficult athletes have found coping with the media circus of the Olympics and the isolation required due to Covid-19. Even if it has been heart-warming to view videos of Olympians’ families reacting to their wins from home, it’s undoubtedly deflating for these athletes to perform alone to solitary stadiums.

Yet even with the disappointment of Olympic defeat or injury, there is often an inspirational tale behind the victor. In Jones’ case, she was beaten by Kimia Alizadeh of the Olympic Refugee Team: a former Iranian athlete and Rio bronze medallist who defected last year in protest at the treatment of Iranian women and has since claimed asylum in Germany. The story of Filipino gold medallist weightlifter Hildyn Diaz is also remarkable: in 2019, she was accused of being in a plot to unseat incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte, and prior to the Olympics spent seven months away from home in Malaysia, ostensibly due to Covid-19. However, on receipt of her Olympic glory, Diaz has been awarded $660,000 (33 million pesos) and a new house by the government. I suppose that’s forgiveness! The Olympic Games are crammed with stories of athletes whose single-minded pursuit of greatness has pulled them through despair, destitution, childbirth – look at Allyson Felix, Helen Glover, or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – and injury to contest greatness again and again.

And there’s much more to come. We’ve only scratched the surface of cycling, athletics, wrestling, karate and modern pentathlon – the most wonderfully silly of sports. Beyond Sunday’s closing ceremony I relish the Paralympics from 24th August. It is heartening to witness the expansion in exposure and popularity of these Games since the turn of the century; in Gold Rush, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson recalls how Paralympic sport has progressed from her day, in Atlanta 1996, when ‘I could literally name the crowd’. Since London 2012, Paralympic athletes have gained the investment and recognition they deserve – Ellie Simmonds, David Weir and Jonny Peacock have become household names – and, Grey-Thompson comments, people ‘talk about lap times, they talk about achievements, rather than saying “Isn’t it lovely? Aren’t they brave and marvellous?”’ These Games are simply more sport; more winning; and more Olympic moments.

Lindsay Crouse wrote in the New Yorker that she was going to watch the Olympics because ‘I’m tired of being cynical about everything.’ Obviously, amid a public health emergency and ever more extreme weather – to which the carbon footprint of an Olympic Games contributes significantly – it is impossible to extricate sport from politics and society, no matter our intentions. And will the citizens of Paris, Los Angeles, or Brisbane be any more enthusiastic than Tokyo for the extravagant splurge of their upcoming Games? The IOC certainly seems too focused on business-as-usual, announcing the 2032 Games just before Tokyo rather than pausing, after the 18 months we’ve just had, to consider any modifications that might be made to the format in a post-pandemic, more climate-conscious world. It may transpire that Tokyo’s Games were successful by the skin of their teeth, at the behest of a calamitous third wave across Japan. How will that reflect the perception, by athletes, officials and viewers alike, of the Olympic movement and spirit? Faster, Higher, Stronger – but Together? Future events might start to comprise an IOC decoy – “Look over here!” – while the rest of the world burns.

But rather than end on that thought, I implore you to embody the spirit of Crouse, just for this fortnight. She continues: ‘We don’t have many ways left in our culture to be collectively inspired. After more than a year of lockdown, tragedy and uncertainty, watching athletes achieve their dreams despite all the challenges felt like one.’ Think of the Fijian rugby sevens teams, who came to Tokyo on a cargo plane and will return heroes, bringing glory to a nation of 800,000 ravaged by Covid. Or American 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, stepping up to nail her floor routine in the absence of teammate Simone Biles. Or Tom Daley, the unfulfilled boy wonder, finally reaching the golden pinnacle in his fourth Olympics. Let’s focus on the athletes striving for greatness, rather than the organisations and the politics and the systems through which they are forced to operate. Let the Games continue – and come on, Team GB!


Cycling the London Underground, Part IV

Northern line train at West Finchley, from:

Northern Line – Saturday 17th July, 8:30am
Stations: 50
Distance: 58km (by train); 77.3km (by bike)

It took me rather longer to complete the Northern line than expected. 64 days, to be precise. On my first attempt, a grey and cool afternoon in May, I became – through a combination of hubris and bad luck – a victim in the bicycle theft pandemic. I learned the hard way that leaving an attractive Boardman Road bike, overnight, and attached by means of a £10 Asda lock to a solitary bike rack in a quiet side street, is more of an advertisement to petty criminals than a sound storage plan. As I returned the next morning to find shards of wire lock where once my £450 frame stood, I realised the fool I was. The human-beings-are-innately-good rationale that reassured me the bike was safe to leave took a pounding in the Real World. Unfortunately, many people are turds.

I was saved, thankfully, by my parents’ exhortation to buy home insurance that covers bicycles. Once the claim is settled, I’ll only be set back to the value of new accessories (a helmet, lights, and a lock that will withstand somewhat more than brute force and a pair of bolt cutters). The only real inconvenience has been finding stores with bikes in stock, with a combined dearth in worldwide production and lockdown-related surge in demand. Nonetheless, two months later, here I am with a near like-for-like replacement (a Pinnacle Laterite 2.0, for you cycling aficionados) which I will keep constantly in my sight when it leaves the house and sleep with if required.

I was naturally unwilling to write up my first Northern line excursion, which was in any case unfinished due to a flat tire sustained in Mill Hill. With the delay in having this repaired (another £12 gratis to the thief of my erstwhile bicycle), I couldn’t complete the High Barnet to Finchley Central branch. This was all the motivation I required for my first journey back on this project. Such was my excitement, and the projected 30-degree heat later that afternoon, that I rose at 6:30am last Saturday to complete the full Northern line before the heat reached full force. If only I could apply such dedication to my day job.

I take an empty Thameslink down from Cambridge and warm up nicely on the short trundle to my starting point: a leafy Kennington, populated by road sweepers and e-scooters (which, judging by their proliferation over the last few months, could give Covid a run for its money). The Northern is a quirky line of essentially five branches – a legacy of the combination, in the 1920s, of the City and South London Railway (the first deep-level Tube railway in the world) and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway. It was first extended south to Morden, northwest to Edgware and northeast to Highgate, with plans for a web of branches across North London known as the “Northern Heights”. The Second World War put paid to much of this project, leaving a full branch to High Barnet and an unfinished spur from Finchley Central to Mill Hill East. Thus, the Northern line is, to use the scientific term, a figure of eight on a stick. Start at the bottom of the eight at Kennington and follow it round the West End branch, through Camden Town in the centre, up to Edgware, across to High Barnet – the only off-line section – back to Camden, round the City branch to Kennington and finally down to the end of the stick at Morden. And there’s also the Mill Hill East shuttle. If you found that description exhausting, try cycling it without melting into a ginger puddle in the tarmac.
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Route map (imagine Edgware and High Barnet are connected!)

Timer and odometer set, I leave Kennington through the ample avenues of the London Borough of Southwark to Waterloo. The eateries of Lower Marsh Street are atwitter with early morning diners supping their cappuccinos. But the station forecourt, and streets sloping down to the South Bank, are still, awaiting the inevitable onslaught of sunseekers. I cross the Hungerford Bridge to admire a shimmering, turquoise Thames, far removed from the slate greyness experienced for my first line, the Bakerloo, back in April. Embankment and Charing Cross pass swiftly and I reach Theatreland – the Garrick, Wyndham’s, Phoenix, Palace – on the cusp of its long-awaited revival from Monday. The smell of roasted almonds permeates the air as I reach Leicester Square; I never understand how there is any demand for these vendors, but the sight provides welcome distraction from the endless building work up Charing Cross Road. I wait an eternity for the lights at Denmark Street – the epicentre of London’s recording studios and music stores – before Tottenham Court Road and the Centre Point Tower come into view.

As the focus of London’s skyline moves ever eastwards with the development of the City and Canary Wharf, its original skyscraper, Centre Point, has faded into insignificance. Celebrating its 55th year in 2021, the Grade II listed, 34-storey building looks of its time, and has faced a perpetual struggle to fill its floors. For decades, “London’s Empty Skyscraper” has served as a reminder of the capital’s two-tiered society: a struggling populace are crowded out by extortionate rents while Centre Point’s owners have made money from keeping the tower deliberately half-full, benefitting from its burgeoning property value while paying minimal bills and rates. The homeless charity Centrepoint was founded to challenge this practice in 1969, yet the problem has, arguably, only worsened since.
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Heading north, I pass Goodge Street and Warren Street in a flurry of book shops, chain stores and pubs. At the latter I observe a spirited hive of schoolchildren, perhaps on their first tourist trip since the onset of the pandemic. The teachers, just about successfully, wave their charge out of the path of a rubbish lorry. Here I bear right and navigate an army of taxis amassing for pickup at Euston mainline station, before turning left for another road-work-strewn plod into Camden.

At Mornington Crescent, I am reminded of family road trips listening to the light-hearted nonsense of Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. It took me a while to understand that, rather than the ‘Mornington Crescent’ panel game being a serious and logical naming of London Transport locations, with time-honoured rules and conventions which eventually led contestants to the eponymous station, the strategies are totally fictional and for comedy value only. Legend has it the game was invented by Chairman Humphrey Lyttleton and company, while drinking, to confuse a particularly uptight show producer. It has been played with a variety of even sillier “special rules” in every series since 1978 and inspired contemporary spoofs like Mitchell and Webb’s Numberwang.

Camden Town is virtually empty, the skeletons of clothes and electronics stalls still awaiting their vendors. I pass Regents Canal and an incongruous Morrisons en route to Chalk Farm, and in trepidation at the steep climb of Haverstock Hill ahead. My lactic acid discomfort is combined with social embarrassment as the 24 bus to Hampstead Heath decides to tailgate me past the boutiques and coffee shops of Belsize Park. Usually this is another area I associate with great memories of trips to London in teenage years, staying at the Premier Inn on Ornan Road. Less so today, with yet more road works as I pass the megalithic Royal Free Hospital on my right. Another steep section slows me to a crawl past the leafy oaks and Range Rovers of Hampstead “village”.

Hampstead, incidentally, is the deepest station on the Tube network at 58.5 metres below ground level. Platforms are accessible only by high-speed lift or a lung-busting spiral staircase of 320 steps, branded ‘the equivalent of a 15-storey building’. Yet at Tufnell Park, on my return journey (and several other stairwayed stations) the much shorter 110-step staircase is also ‘the equivalent of a 15-storey building’. Either it’s an honest case of inconsistency or London Underground’s attempt at a joke. I’d forgive you if you’re not falling off your chair with laughter…

With one final expletive-laden uphill push to Whitestone Pond, I reach the highest point of my journey and stop for some well-earned dried mango. Ahead of me is the oddly named Jack Straw’s Castle: unrelated to Tony Blair’s second Foreign Secretary, but rather the site where the eponymous Peasant’s Revolt leader sought refuge in 1381 before his eventual capture and execution. Formerly a pub, frequented by the likes of Dickens, it was converted to luxury apartments (eye roll) and now sits bedecked in scaffolding, awaiting a buyer.
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It’s an exhilarating downhill from here to Golders Green, whose well-apportioned main street is the busiest yet, packed with delivery drivers, elderly shoppers, and Orthodox Jewish men with their distinctive shtreimel and wide-brimmed hats. The setting quickly becomes suburban, mock-Tudor sprawl as I turn left towards Brent Cross. Heathfield Gardens is ruthlessly terminated by the North Circular Road, which I cross by way of a chicaning pedestrian footbridge, to the peeling, scruffy facades of Cheyne Walk. Hendon Central is a cut-and-paste of Golders Green, only with a wider, noisier thoroughfare which I must follow uphill until squeezed onto a dual carriageway.

Thankfully, Colindale is quieter again: a mixture of industrial estate and those non-descript, metal-cladded apartment blocks which constitute the extent of 21st century architectural originality. Nonetheless, my shortcut opens onto a charming green oasis and community space called Silkstream Park. The landscaped cycleway takes me to Burnt Oak, which is only memorable for a half-crisis when I forget how my new gears work and get tooted. The main road passes Poundlands and car dealerships until the emergence of St Margaret’s church signals I have reached the end of the branch. Edgware itself isn’t pleasant: busy and pungent with the combined aroma of bus exhaust and gas works that slow my progress to a crawl.

I now make a nine-kilometre cross-country trek over to High Barnet, to pick up my third Northern line branch as the morning heat begins to bite. I’ve tried to cover up as much as possible, since I hate sun cream, but it’s getting very sweaty despite my breathable clothes and the fresh breeze. At least I can confirm that prescription sunglasses were the best investment I’ve ever made. The monotony of Mill Hill, where every house reminds me of the Goodman residence from Friday Night Dinner, gives way to another punishing ascent and then the almost rural Totteridge Common. Past well-apportioned farms and mansions, I catch a glimpse of the shimmering London skyline to my right. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I can’t think of many better.

My contentment lasts a good ten minutes before the bike’s gear chain manages to detach itself at High Barnet station; I repair it in an uninviting layby behind a used car lot and barbed wire fence. By about 11am, with the hands of a chimney sweep, I’m good to head southward up Pricklers Hill. I’m greeted by a party of proper cyclists and muster a troubled grunt back, wondering how much more elevation I can endure. Built-up Barnet gives way to more of a Victorian village vibe at Totteridge and Whetstone in the valley of Dollis Brook. I follow this stream, deftly navigating dogs and toddlers, through a cool woodland to the appropriately named Woodside Park. From here, 1930s semi-detached confusion returns; I make an accidental detour of about a mile while seeking West Finchley because every street looks the same.
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Still, I’m making fast progress, and don’t mind the detour to Mill Hill East and back beneath the marvellous Dollis Brook Viaduct. This 18-metre, arched brick structure is 144 years old and carries the Northern line across the short spur, to a station building that would not look out of place in a Thomas Hardy novel. After negotiating my final significant hill to Finchley Central – and being cut up by a gormless woman in a Beetle – I switch off and gulp down far too much water. A nearby petrol station thermometer indicates 28 degrees already.

(Finchley Central, for those of a certain age, will be best known for the 1967 New Vaudeville Band’s song ‘Finchley Central / is two-and-sixpence / from Golders Green on the Northern Line...’ Actually, though, you would be silly to take the Northern Line to cover said distance, regardless of price. Finchley Central to Golders Green is a 2.2-mile, 10-minute direct bus journey; on the Tube, it would not only cost more than 2s 6d today but take 10 stops and 35 minutes, with a necessary change at Camden Town. Really the song should be flagged as misleading, Trump tweet-style.)

East Finchley feels unremarkable as I zoom through in my dedicated cycle lane, cheerily cutting past the stationary traffic towards Highgate. I pass a couple of fancy-looking pubs to my left, the Woodman and the Boogaloo, before inadvertently entering a speed contest with a very long Royal Mail delivery truck. The road dives downhill and there is a brief sighting of Canary Wharf before I reach Archway: a square of traffic mayhem flanked by turreted tower blocks. It’s a quick blitz of takeaways and delis as I pass Tufnell Park and Kentish Town in quick succession. Interestingly, the etymology of the latter is not ‘a bit like Kent’ but rather Ken-ditch – ‘the bed of a waterway’ – which probably refers to the premodern River Fleet. This river still flows, albeit diverted through underground sewers, from Hampstead and Highgate Ponds to Blackfriars, just below Fleet Street.

Thanks to a strange one-way system, I can’t find my way back to Camden Town to join up the branches, but parallel streets of Georgian colonnades return me to the congestion charging zone. On Euston Road, I follow a City type in full suit and brogues who makes Boris Johnson look like a proficient cyclist; he doesn’t take well to stopping for a convoy of ambulances who reclaim our bike lane. The concourse at King’s Cross St. Pancras is crammed with travellers in festive mood who don’t understand what a road is; I chunter at them (hopefully) inaudibly. Another hill, albeit gentle by this morning’s standards, takes me to Angel – the third of six Tube stations I’ve visited that are named for pubs. (A seventh was planned for the Old Bull and Bush, between Hampstead and Golders Green, but this was cancelled in 1906 before any surface buildings were constructed.)

My passage through Clerkenwell is smooth if unexciting; more bland glass developments are soaring up in the Old Street area, which is reduced to hot tarmac gridlock at the time of my arrival. This northern edge of the City is reportedly becoming a tech and IT hotspot, although the preferred monikers of “Silicon Roundabout” or “East London Tech City” are frankly naff. I journey south to Moorgate, another area blighted by drills and JCBs as it prepares for the opening of Crossrail in 2046 2022. London’s financial exchanges crowd in on approach to Bank. The Corinthian-columned portico of the Royal Exchange – formerly of Lloyds, now a shopping centre – looms to my left behind Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey’s statue of the Duke of Wellington. It’s a sight that will continue to define the City, whether its traders, post-Covid, return to the floors or not.

I cross London Bridge, the location of the original Roman Thames crossing, to the station of the same name. The bridge is now on an iteration from 1973; the previous structure, opened in 1831, was sold to Missourian oil entrepreneur Robert McCulloch for nearly $2.5 million, and shipped – in 15-20 cm chunks – to be rebuilt in California’s Lake Havasu City. McCulloch allegedly believed he was buying the much more visually exciting Tower Bridge. I first came across the Lake Havasu London Bridge in a surrealist 2017 painting by Kerry Marshall at the Tate; it transpires that the true story is scarcely less bizarre.
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I gird my loins for the final push south at a small flower garden near Borough and welcome the return of my old friend the Cycle Superhighway at Elephant & Castle. At this point I encounter an intimidating, lycra-clad man who I follow for the next ten or so stops; at each traffic light our mutual realisation of this fact becomes increasingly awkward, and I’d almost consider taking a detour if lunch wasn’t within reach. At Kennington the figure of eight is complete, the finish line in sight. I pass the Oval on my right, which is technically owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (that is, Prince Charles) alongside such sights as the Isles of Scilly, Dartmoor, and a Holiday Inn in Reading.

As the midday sun beats down, a never-ending wait at the Stockwell junction simulates the depths of Hell, but from Clapham North I reminisce over nights out at Infernos, London’s answer to the Cambridge clubbing scene. A 2014 Metro article described Infernos as ‘London’s cheesiest club’ and it is famously the filming location for Will, Simon, Jay and Neil’s excruciating dance to “We Speak No Americano” in The Inbetweeners Movie. Could there be a higher honour bestowed upon a nightclub? Clapham Common station heralds the emergence of a packed green space: ice cream vans galore; swans on the prowl; and a yoga-cum-taekwondo class – lots of middle-aged people locking heads – which draws my consternation. My stomach feels considerably emptier by the time I reach Clapham South, itself saturated with enticing lunch options.

I remember few features of the landscape as we tick off Balham, Tooting Bec, Tooting Broadway and Collier’s Wood. There’s a sewing superstore, an Argos, a jobcentre and an enormous Lidl, and I feel resentful of the motorised delivery scooters who make selective use of the cycle lane. The stations on this part of the line are simple and unified – if ugly – combinations of angular grey stonework and rectangular glass windows, topped and tailed with the station name in blue trim and festooned with the iconic Underground roundel in the centre. These were designed by Charles Holden in the late 1920s and his style also transfers – with mercifully fewer angles – to many of the outer Piccadilly line locations.

I finally throw off my lycra-clad stalker at South Wimbledon, where row upon row of urban terraces make room for a few more trees and shopping complexes. There’s an abrupt left turn and dual carriageway section for the final push to Morden. This is not an area which is blessed architecturally: the Merton Civic Centre is a hideous 60s block dumped on the main street. My triumphant final push is interrupted by a topless van man standing in the middle of the road; I obliviously ride around him, and it turns out he’s trying to stop vehicles while his colleague reverses, so I get an earful for my ignorance. Still, I will claim the moral high ground as there is never a non-beach setting in which a bare male torso should be tolerated.

On that bombshell ends near 80 kilometres of sweaty toil. The decision to start at 8:30am paid off; not to mention, of course, my new resolution not to lose my bicycle. There is a serious lesson, though, not to skimp on bike safety; never leave it unattended for long periods; and invest in a proper Kryptonite lock. As for the Northern line itself, the new experience of hills was welcome from a fitness perspective – at no point did I admit defeat and take to walking – but not on the warmest day of the year so far. The stretches in Hampstead, Totteridge and Highgate were beautiful; and wall-to-wall sunshine still made areas like Morden look habitable. Overall, I’m grateful to get back in the saddle (if, at time of writing, I must fix another flat tire). Even longer, and hopefully cooler, lines await.


Out of Love: After the French Open, my patience with tennis hangs by a thread


In the last fortnight, I’ve exhausted enough emotional energy over the red dirt of Paris to power the National Grid. Honestly, if I could direct the passion, frustration and – whenever Novak Djokovic wins a Grand Slam title – profound disappointment I feel watching tennis into more productive means, I could probably find the solution to global hunger. As it is, I’m seething in bed, having kicked some unsuspecting appliance across the room, and lamenting the increasingly dysfunctional relationship that has ensnared me for the last five years.

It’s not all about Djokovic. Since the onset of the pandemic, it seems tennis merits mainstream media coverage only when firefighting yet another piece of controversy: a super spreader tournament; an allegation of sexual assault; and now, a player suffering from depression hounded out of a Grand Slam. It speaks volumes when the governing bodies of the four greatest tournaments – who couldn’t ordinarily co-ordinate the proverbial piss-up –unite in threatening Naomi Osaka with expulsion for shirking her French Open press responsibilities, yet, alongside the governing body for men’s tennis, remain silent on far more damning allegations against a spate of male players. The French Tennis Federation (FFT) – well-practised alchemists of tragedy into farce – attracted further disdain for its unequal gender scheduling of night sessions which, until 9th June, were spectator-free due to France’s 9pm curfew. After this was extended to 11pm, we saw a Djokovic-Berrettini quarterfinal suspended to allow fans to get home on time, yet the 4-hour-11-minute semifinal between the Serb and Rafael Nadal was deemed to be of sufficient quality that the Prime Minister of France Jean Castex made an exemption to his own law. It was one rule for the Big Three, another for mere mortals, as previously demonstrated when Roger Federer was given a free pass to withdraw from the tournament not for any injury, but to preserve his body for the imminent grass-court season. These inconsistencies and controversies hang like a bad smell over an otherwise enthralling, unpredictable tournament.

I’ll start with the feeding frenzy over Osaka’s announcement that she would be boycotting her post-match press conferences; it’s now old news, but clearly the most egregious and avoidable example of mismanagement. Despite the bluntness of her statement, the Japanese superstar intended to trigger a discussion on mental health and the burdens of press engagements, but the official response computed this as an invitation to nuclear conflict. The joint ultimatum from the Australian, French, US and British Grand Slam bodies paid cursory mention to Osaka’s wellbeing in dispensing a $15,000 fine for missing her round one obligations and threatening expulsion not only from Roland Garros, but potentially future Slams, should she continue. Her behaviour was deemed ‘detrimental or injurious to the grand slam tournaments,’ as if professional tennis players are employed merely to speak to journalists rather than compete for hours in televised matches that rake in revenue for the tournaments involved. Osaka’s subsequent withdrawal seemed a sad and natural consequence, particularly with the revelation that she had been suffering from periodic depression since her maiden Grand Slam at the US Open in September 2018.

Osaka’s plight demonstrates the sport’s marriage of convenience with mental health. As Marina Hyde argued in The Guardian, you can talk about it when the match is over (even better in a memoir, like Andre Agassi) but in the meantime, ‘just shut up and play’. Osaka, clearly reticent in this environment to broach the topic of her own depression, was effectively outed by the Grand Slam bodies. She is now taking the time to recover, potentially skipping Wimbledon for the American hard courts on which she feels more at home. But there is little indication, beyond a supportive statement from the Women’s Tennis Association, that this will trigger more investment into mental health support for players who have been largely stuck in hotel bubbles since the mid-pandemic Tour restart. Those athletes suffering in silence – it would seem from form that such champions as Dominic Thiem have taken the restrictions particularly hard – may remain cowered for fear of the next official slap down.

As she did over Black Lives Matter last August, Naomi Osaka has bravely opened an overdue conversation in tennis about the merits of press commitments. Of course, this issue is not nearly as clear cut. Tennis journalists are increasingly conscious to respect players’ privacy and hold off from aggressive questioning in the wake of defeats, so would struggle to recognise Osaka’s blanket characterisation that they have ‘no regard for athletes’ mental health’. A clear majority of players understand their mutually beneficial relationship with the press; 2020 Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek argued pithily that ‘with the right support, with the right distance and with balance, it’s part of our job… they give a platform to talk about our lives from our perspective’. Yes, questioning can be repetitive, interminable and overly critical at times. It’s ironic that Naomi Osaka has often been a master at turning lazy queries into a festival of candid, thoughtful responses and witty asides that make for far better stories than the journalists involved could have hoped. But I’d disagree with celebrities – often fair-weather sports fans – who jump aboard the anti-media bandwagon, arguing that Osaka has earned the right not to do press or, dipping into Oprah territory, be subjected to journalists who make her deny her “truth”. Why would the Japanese press pack travel all the way to France, subjected to the same brutal quarantine as players, just to belittle their star player? What is the point in paying to send them halfway across the world if Osaka is to avoid press? There is clearly room for reforming and streamlining press, but responsibilities come with the job on both sides.

It’s hard to look at the treatment of Osaka, and the speed of her condemnation, without again identifying double standards at play within tennis. In 2018, Serena Williams was told by a former FFT president that her black catsuit would not be accepted the following year, so it is from experience that the American speculated, when commenting on Osaka’s withdrawal, that she would face the same treatment for skipping press. Meanwhile, several white male players continue to play, uninvestigated or unsanctioned by the sport’s authorities, following genuinely illegal activities. World No. 30 Nikoloz Basilashvili was charged last year by a Georgian court with assaulting his ex-wife over custody of their son, yet the ATP has opened no investigation. Ditto Alexander Zverev, who reached the French Open semifinals, and is accused of assault and emotional abuse by his ex-girlfriend Olya Sharypova. She has detailed a litany of abuse in the lead up to the 2019 US Open in an interview with Ben Rothenberg for Racquet magazine, and yet his blanket denial – bolstered by fellow ATP players declining to comment – has seemingly been accepted for the time being. Zverev appeared sufficiently unconcerned by his conduct to spend most of the first 2020 lockdown partying in Monaco and impregnating his next girlfriend, German model Brenda Patea, before moving on again. Earlier this year he described the announcement of their daughter as the ‘highlight of his life,’ to which Patea responded, ‘I hardly think so – we have no contact’. Scarcely less grave, in the context of a raging pandemic, is Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour, held without masks and social distancing in super-spreader events across the Balkans. The World No. 1 has received no disciplinary action from the ATP for this, which might be expected after Sam Querrey – who tested positive for Covid-19 at an event in St. Petersburg and subsequently decided to sneak home on a private jet – was, after a ten-week investigation, given a suspended $20,000 fine. Still, he’s off scot free, since he has fulfilled the terms of the suspension and committed no further public health breaches in the subsequent six months.

The ATP, WTA and four Grand Slam governing bodies are independent organisations with different jurisdictions, but Osaka’s treatment demonstrates that it must be possible for them to act quickly and, on matters as grave as the above, together. The French Tennis Federation wasted no time in 2020 to reschedule Roland Garros from May to October, whether the Asian autumn hard court swing happened or not. They postponed this year’s tournament by one week to take advantage of the unlocking of restrictions in France. Yet still, the operation was botched. New night session matches – possible with the addition of a roof and floodlights to Court Phillipe Chatrier – started at 9pm, the same time as France’s curfew until 9th June. This messed with players’ energy levels and sleep cycles (Federer’s third round match ended at 12:37am, meaning he was in press conferences until around 3am), performing to empty seats for the benefit of television rights holders Amazon Prime, claimed defeated quarterfinalist Daniil Medvedev. Tournament director Guy Forget reasoned that it was ‘sporting fairness’, rather than cash, which dictated why some of the top players would have to perform in front of empty stands – or, in the later Djokovic-Berrettini case – stands that vacated three hours into their match and interrupted their rhythm. And clearly, when referencing ‘top players’, he meant the men: of the 11 night matches, only 2 featured women (Williams-Begu and Swiatek-Kostyuk). Victoria Azarenka had some choice words on scheduling following her fourth-round loss to eventual finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: ‘the French federation is continuously trying to say that there’s equality and only pointing to prize money’. Starkly, when the 58th meeting of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal went beyond the new curfew of 11pm on Friday, it led to a change in the French law. I can’t see that happening for Serena Williams and Simona Halep, for instance. Equal scheduling remains a perennial issue for the Grand Slams, especially Roland Garros and Wimbledon. As Medvedev put it, ‘Cash is King’.

Few of these decisions are black-and-white, simple rulings for the tennis authorities, not least while they deal with reopening stadia for reduced groups of socially distanced fans around frustratingly arbitrary Covid restrictions. But time and again, the sport has opted for the anachronistic choice, as though incapable of change at the highest levels. What do its governing bodies care about more: mental health or Amazon Prime? As Marina Hyde observes, the sport remains ‘fundamentally incurious’: it’s happy to accept Alexander Zverev’s denial of abuse allegations; to retain a primitive drug testing regime (yet it’s always Serena Williams who gets tested); and does little to clamp down on the irregular betting patterns that mar matches in the poorly-remunerated lower echelons of the sport. It feels rather fitting that Novak Djokovic, whose forays into Fantasyland I have documented, should emerge as the Greatest of All Time in a sport that eschews reality to soil its pants over press conferences.

This is an obsession that has become too much to bear. I’ve been watching tennis less out of love than out of an obligation to keep up, and often in the fervent hope that one man will be defeated. Tsitsipas came close, but nobody has proven capable – not least mentally – of overhauling Djokovic at the helm of the men’s game for much of the last decade. The victory of the “NextGen” will probably be dictated by his retirement. Women’s tennis is much stronger in depth and exciting for it, so I’m loath to tar it with the same brush. The women’s semifinal between Barbora Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari was one of the most captivating yet agonising contests I’ve ever seen. Krejcikova is the third unseeded player to win Roland Garros in five years, which highlights the magnitude of unpredictability. In addition, I could certainly be watching more doubles and wheelchair tennis; we saw British winners in the mixed doubles (Joe Salisbury - for the first time in 40 years), and wheelchair men’s singles and doubles (Alfie Hewitt and Gordon Reid).

However, I feel ready for a total hiatus from the Novak-infested waters that seep across the sport. We create bogeymen in our own heads to give meaningful stakes to sporting rivalries, and I’ve blown this one out of all proportion. It started from a kernel of logic: a matter of preference in how the game should be played combined with a more serious concern about ethical conduct (promoting anti-vaxxer sentiment, the Adria Tour, pseudo-scientific medical diagnoses, etc.). Djokovic wins tennis matches with machine-like relentlessness and a mentality that few fans can relate to. It is scarcely credible how many times he has rescued himself from the brink of defeat with the power of will: the double match point down on Federer’s serve at Wimbledon 2019 will live long in the collective memory, yet the Serb was also two sets to love down twice at this French Open, before defeating Lorenzo Musetti in round four and Tsitsipas in the final. All sporting greats reach their pedestal by denying some element of rationality; Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, admitted to the use of ‘visualization preparation’ as if she’d won the Grand Slam by mental resilience alone. Djokovic, I’m sure, has adopted similar techniques (employing his former “peace and love” guru Pepe Imaz for that purpose) yet, combined with his views on gluten and polluted water, his efforts to divorce from reality are a little on the nose for me. I’m unenthusiastic for a sport where Novak is the GOAT, with a bureaucracy so brittle and outdated that deeds like his – and much worse – go without scrutiny. I still hope that won’t happen, but the writing is on the wall.