The Olympic Games, once again, are being viewed through a prism of parochialism.

Australian commentators dwell on the plucky Aussie who finished out of the medals but swam a PB. Or drool incessantly over Stephanie Rice. American broadcasters focus solely on their swimmers during the pre-race introductions, while ignoring the other seven competitors behind the blocks. And that’s only when they’ve run out of things to say about Michael Phelps.

And so it goes. Every country is the same. This is the way world works, and it will always be thus.

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But watching the Games with blinkers on comes at a price. For often the best stories are lost among the jingoism and green-and-gold provincialism.

Already at these Olympics, there have been some fantastic tales — of bravery, inspiration, chicanery and unalloyed joy – that have not had the airplay, or press coverage, they deserve.

The tiny west African country of Togo sent a team of four to the Games. It had never won a medal until Benjamin Boukpeti belted down the kayak slalom course fast enough to claim bronze. And don’t you think Benjamin was delighted? So pumped was he that, when he saw the result, he banged the paddle down so hard on his kayak, it smashed in half. Meet Benjamin Boukpeti, new Togolese national hero.

But his celebration paled beside that of Italy’s champion fencer Valentina Vezzali, winner of the past two Olympic gold medals in the individual foil. Vezzali trailed her Korean opponent, 4-5, in the final, but leveled the scores with one minute to go. Then in the final frenetic seconds, she managed to score a hit with her final thrust to claim her third straight gold, and enter the pantheon of Olympic greats.

Her ensuing celebration should have won her another medal. For it was one of the most passionate, heartfelt demonstrations of joy seen at an Olympics – as YouTube will show. (Did we mention she was Italian?)

There are other tales out there that have largely slipped under the radar: American swimmer Eric Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer in June, a week before the Olympic trials. He was given a choice: have treatment immediately and miss the Games, or compete in Beijing and have surgery later? He chose the latter.

“How do I keep focused? It’s been pretty easy actually,” Shanteau said.

“There’s a lot more to life than the Olympic Games and I think having learned that lesson really quickly has helped keep this whole thing in perspective for me.”

After missing out on a berth in the 200m breaststroke final, Shanteau headed home to keep his date with his doctors.

There have been unseemly spats, too. While it made front-page news in the UK, we heard little about the British 14-year-old diver Tom Daley, who was blamed by his 26-year-old partner Blake Aldridge for costing the pair a medal in the 10m synchronised diving final.

And there have been the usual tales of skullduggery. The most recent involves the Chinese women’s gymnastics team which won gold this week, and the age of one of its competitors. It was reported nine months ago by China’s news agency Xinhua that gymnast He Kexin was 13, three years younger than the minimum age allowed for Olympic competition. The story was removed from the Xinhua website archive yesterday. Chinese officials now say that was a mistake; He is, in fact, 16. The Americans, who finished with silver, remain distinctly unimpressed.

Rabid nationalism is hardly a new phenomenon at the Olympics. It happened in 2000 in Sydney. While the nation went into raptures over Cathy Freeman’s 400-metre triumph — and understandably so — out on the track a short time later, Ethiopia’s great middle-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie chalked up a victory for the ages. He not just defended his Olympic 10,000-metre title, but did it in the most dramatic way imaginable: running the last 200 metres in 25.4 seconds to overhaul Kenya’s Paul Tergat in the home straight and win by 0.09 seconds, closer than the winning margin in the men’s 100-metre final. Amid the Freeman euphoria, the race almost went unnoticed.

So the great stories are out there. It’s just a matter of taking off the blinkers, putting down the Boxing Kangaroo flag, calling time on the oi, oi, oi chant and looking around. Go on, give it a try.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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