Aidan Smith: The 'journeys' of our Olympians resonate louder than anything on The X Factor

They could be a boyband with their hunky looks, tattooed arms and obsession with gold and silver discs. And the quartet of Adam Peaty, Luke Greenbank, James Guy and Duncan Scott - the later protecting his sensitive Scottish skin under the kind of bucket hat once popularised by Liam Gallagher - even talk about “the journey”.

Simon Cowell at The X Factor auditions back in 2017. PIC: Anthony Devlin.
Simon Cowell at The X Factor auditions back in 2017. PIC: Anthony Devlin.
Simon Cowell at The X Factor auditions back in 2017. PIC: Anthony Devlin.

But these guys are swimmers, not singers. The precious metal adorning them isn’t recognition for selling lots of records of their heartfelt emoting, rather for their speed and strength in the Olympic pool. They’re less concerned with key changes - climbing from stools as the song surges with even more sincerity and syrup - than with relay changeovers. Medleys rather than melodies.

And the journey? Oh, says Peaty, the most flamboyant and therefore the nominal Harry Styles-esque leader, it’s not just about the medals and the glory of the Games. Being an Olympian is about seeing the world, experiencing different cultures, meeting new people.

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What nice boys, reflecting on their 4x100m success in Tokyo, and what simple yet noble aims. Can you vote for them yet? Have the phonelines opened? Actually, that’s not how the Olympics work. And on The X Factor, once a light-entertainment leviathan, the lines have just gone dead. (Hopefully you won’t be charged). So it’s just as well that our fab four opted for alternative careers.

But what were we thinking? From 2004 to 2018, did we lose our minds, tuning in every week? Actually I stopped watching The X Factor some time ago and I hear you saying you did, too, but more than a few clots must have stuck with the talent show for it to have lasted so long.

Three years ago The X Factor’s svengali, Simon Cowell, decided to rest the programme, fearing it could turn into a “joke” if he didn’t. This was said with a perfectly straight face, the kind he would use when confronted by a squawking lunatic at the open auditions. He actually didn’t believe The X Factor had jumped the shark long ago. And now he’s killed it off.

Cowell couldn’t get away with those auditions now, or at least the jokey elements of them. He and his fellow judges used to be helicoptered round the regions where, on sweltering summer afternoons, they’d preside in partitioned-off corners of exhibition centres and shatter dreams. But The X Factor’s gophers all in black with head mics wouldn’t be allowed to hurry the mature contestant - teeth missing, unusual hat, plastic bag - to the front of the queue snaking right across the car park. The first few weeks of any new season could be like a freak show, but Cowell was only giving viewers what they appeared to want.

Most of the hopefuls were young and many could sing, albeit in imitation of keening R&B warblers and belters from the charts, which suggested the x in The X Factor stood for Xerox. And right before the nation’s eyes every Saturday night the route from supermarket checkout to duetting with Beyonce seemed achievable.

Not route, sorry - journey. But before the journey which contestants hoped would end with the Christmas No 1, they needed to have been on one emotionally in their own lives to have made it onto the show - a backstory of sadness told with sombre lighting and minor-key piano accompaniment.

Wannabe: “I’m here today for Joey.” Cowell: “Who’s Joey?” Contestant: “My budgie. It’s got lumbago, possibly gout as well.” Cowell, ruthlessness cracking, in response to declining audiences: “Take your time, off you go … ”

The destination of the journey was fame. Not Fame, Texas or Fame, Arizona but F-A-M-E. At its peak when 20 million watched, The X Factor was the reason almost an entire generation of kids, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, answered: “Famous.”

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The show’s genius was to recruit from the streets, which enhanced the feeling that the destination was within reach, with Cowell as the Pied Piper who couldn’t have been more conspicuous in high-waisted trousers if he’d worn the original’s half-red, half-yellow coat. Other programmes copied the model and the promotion of fame as a career choice. Meanwhile in space no one could hear Tim Peake scream: “Once upon a time, you all dreamed of becoming astronauts. What happened? …

What happened to The X Factor was as brutal as one of Cowell’s “It’s a no from me …. ” when he was at the height of his trousers and the height of his panto villainy. The clunky contrivedness of the show quickly became obvious. The future of television suddenly looked old-fashioned and unsophisticated. The “drama” of the contestants’ stories became repetitive, the judges spats tedious, the reboots more and more desperate. Ultimately, there was a rebellion against the musical landscape being drawn solely by one all-powerful man.

If you’re a teenager now you’ll be getting your music from YouTube, TikTok and Spotify. Same if you have aspirations to be heard; you don’t need Cowell. But maybe right at this moment you’re being inspired by Duncan Scott and his fellow Olympians.

Every edition of the Games prompts a surge of interest and participation, at least in the sports which aren’t quite so superhuman, but doesn’t it seem greater this time round? Maybe Tokyo has captured the post-lockdown mood. Perhaps, too, with there being no crowds at the events and the athletes’ families having to cheer from home through the wee small hours - plus these Olympics putting dreams on hold for a year - the stories of commitment and devotion are resonating more.

In Max “Factor” Whitlock, in Tom Daley grabbing gold at last, in BMX ace Bethany Shriever crowdfunding her way to glory and in Scott pounding the training pool on cold, dark mornings, these are the real journeys.

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