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Are the Olympics the new football?

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Mihir Bose | 14:18 UK time, Thursday, 21 August 2008

Britain has its best Olympics for a century while the England football team give yet another unconvincing performance at Wembley.

So will the nation begin to lose some of its obsession with why the golden generation of Beckham and company failed to deliver and turn to the real golden generation of British sportsmen and women that have flowered so extraordinarily here in Beijing?

Not even London 2012 chief Lord Coe believes the nation is ready to turn away from football. As a season ticket holder at Chelsea, Coe himself worships football, and he rightly sees it as the nation's religion.

Road cyclist Nicole Cooke started the Great Britain gold rush in Beijing

But in a sense this is a false question - the Olympics are not meant to rival football. But where they can succeed is in providing a shift in the nation's sporting landscape.

Over the last two decades, football has completely taken over as the abiding focus of sporting attention throughout the year.

It never stops. Other sports hardly ever replace it at the head of the sports pages in the newspapers.

Twenty years ago, football did not exercise such dominance.

Then after the FA Cup final, and perhaps a couple of England internationals, cricket would take over for the summer, with other sports such as athletics also getting a fair bit of attention.

Many factors have contributed to the change, but we in the media have also played a part.

The expansion of the written press, following the arrival of new technology in the late '80s, meant that as the papers grew they began to devote more pages to football.

When I did my first football reports for the Sunday Times in the late '70s, there were barely four pages for sports and the paper never carried more than four match reports.

Reporters always wanted to get a north-south match, because that would make the final edition that circulated in London and the south. If I reported a Leeds v Nottingham Forest or some such encounter between teams from the north and the midlands, I never saw what I had written in print.

Now papers have separate sports sections, acres are given over to every Premiership match.

The broadcast media has also played a part. Back then, there was more cricket on the box and live football was confined to the FA Cup final and England matches. Satellite television has changed all that.

And of course, we have since had the explosion of the internet and online coverage.

The astonishing success of the Premier League, a rare British world market leader in sports, has also contributed.

But this is where the Beijing Olympics comes in.

The success of the British athletes has meant that for the first time anyone can remember, people are interested in the country's position in the medals table.

True, Britain cannot catch China or USA but Britain's contest with Russia for third place in the table race is the Olympics equivalent of a totally unfancied Premiership team breaking into the top four.

It is, then, hardly surprising that the Beijing Games have taken over from football as the nation's primary sporting focus.

Of course, this is not the first time people have talked about other sports becoming serious rivals for football.

Recall that rugby was meant to do so after England won the World Cup in 2003, or cricket after the Ashes victory in 2005.

But the Olympics could be different. The fact that London will follow Beijing as host city should mean that the triumphs in China will not just vanish once the summer is over.

At the same time, the church of football will not be suddenly deserted, and nor should it be.

But for the first time in a generation football may have to look over its shoulders at some Olympic sports.

And that will be good for football and sport in general.


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