Each release of the podcast ‘The Rest is history’ has me reaching for the play button. It is presented by the Laurel and Hardy of the academic history world, Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook. They have a repartee between them that it polished, clever, and entertaining. They wear their knowledge lightly but astute, and really rather witty.

It was from them when them I was reminded about the wonderful passage in Herodotus when some  mercenaries are trying to explain to the Persians where the Greek army they were planning to fight has got to. They had temporarily disappeared to take part in the Olympics. The Persians assumed that they had been drawn away by the promise of huge financial prizes, and were completely non-plussed to be told the prize was a bunch of leaves to be worn on the head. That they were celebrating excellence and not money. This was a new idea to the Persians and one they found very odd. 

Watching the Olympics has entertained millions. I think my most exciting moment was watching an English girl who seemed little more than a teenager launching herself off a slope into the air, perform a perfect backwards somersault, and land flawlessly on a tiny BMX bike.

There were some more dismal moments, as when the whole rowing team seemed to have a melt down or a hissy fit of self-pity after being a bit mediocre. Not much honour or excellence there. 

But as well as the moral fibre of the sportsmen and women , I was struck too the sudden moral microscope focussed on the administrators. There was flurry of resignations and sacking behind the scenes.

Some of the Japanese hosts had been found to have behaved badly in the past. And in fact when you look at the details of what they said or did, it was pretty unpleasant stuff. But was it so bad they had to be fired or cancelled?

The real distinction seemed to me about honour again, and the quest for moral excellence being not so much the highest standards as the highest effort. And the highest effort may be the determination to say sorry.

Yoshiro Mori, 83, who was the of President Tokyo’s Olympic Organizing Committee was an old-fashioned chauvinist. He made a stupid remark about not having too many women on a committee because, he said, “they competed with each other and out talked each other” Cue a huge outcry from people who rightly asked how an elderly Japanese chauvinist could have been appointed to such a sensitive and prominent role. It’s not as if men are any less competitive. It showed bad judgement as well as stupidity, and not much effort shown to confront his own prejudices. He was sacked.

Perhaps it’s not very surprising that stupid and genuinely offensive remarks come at a price, but it’s more complicated when a lot of time as passed by. When the stupidity took places years ago, shouldn’t the question of whether a person has learned their lesson since matter?

Kentaro Kobayashi was Tokyo Olympics 2020 director of the opening ceremony. Someone dug up a stupid off the cuff joke he made in a comedy routine twenty years ago. 

In the sketch Mr Kobayashi turns to his colleague, referring to some paper dolls, saying they are “the ones from that time you said ‘let’s play the Holocaust.’”

Recognising that humour acts as a release valve for some of our darkest moments, lines have to be drawn somewhere. And jokes about the holocaust are exactly where I would draw a line. But ought there not be room for allowances to be made for learning from past mistakes. There should be space made for having discovered how stupid we are capable of being, and changing direction; saying sorry. There was no recognition of his sorrow and apology. Public opinion which can be ruthless turned against him. Public opinion is not a very accurate gauge of moral virtue.

Hiroshi Sasaki was Head Creative Director of the opening & closing Olympic ceremonies. He made a rude joke about a large Japanese comedienne and fashion icon, Naomi Watanabe. It was part of a brain storming session on a group messaging app. It was pretty rude. He thought the groups was private, which was a mistake. However, he did appear to have been sincerely sorry; “Now many people know what I wrote. I cannot apologize enough to Ms. Watanabe,” he said, adding that he was a big fan of hers. Being sorry wasn’t enough to save him. He was sacked.  

Keigo Oyamada is a composer who had put together four minutes of music for Olympic Opening Ceremony. In the 1990’s he had been interviewed for a magazine where he had boasted about his bullying of his classmates at school.  The bullying was sickening, and the boasting was worse. But in the intervening years he had realised the extent of how badly he had behaved.

He wrote  “I sincerely feel that such acts and language must be criticized” and that he feels “deep regret and responsibility” for what he describes as his “extremely immature” actions.

He added he has felt guilty about it for a long time and that he hopes to contact the people he bullied to issue a personal apology.

His sorrow and apology didn’t save him from the Damoclean sword of public opinion. He too was sacked.

People ought to be held accountable for mistakes, blunders and immoralities. But if the Olympics are about sporting excellence and honour, then isn’t there a degree of honour  in being able to recognise how stupid we have been?  Isn’t there an element of moral excellence in what Christianity calls ‘repentance’ – a complete changing of attitude accompanied by a deep regret?

A public sense of self-righteous morality that fails to recognise the value of learning from our mistakes and being sorry is a terrifying prospect. Learning the importance of mercy is as much part of morality as pointing out other peoples’ mistakes. Excellence and honour come in dealing with failure as much as in achieving success.