Edition number 32; dateline 1 July 2010
In pursuit of glorious demise: taking the wheel of greatness
In this summer of sporting summers I have never been far away from the agonies and ecstasies played out on the sporting stage. Although I promised myself I wouldn’t (I try only to follow the footy tournaments in which England have failed to qualify) I have been fully immersed in the World Cup and then Wimbledon appeared to fill some of the gaps between the last 16 matches and the quarter-finals. At the time of writing the Tour de France is only days away and I can feel the tension building as I contemplate having a British team (and an aspiring British contender for each of two of the Tour’s major prizes) to follow. I’m not sure I’ll be able to stand it.
With all this going on and all of it easily accessible at the press of a button, red or otherwise, I have been reminded that nothing says more about a great champion than the manner of their demise. I tend to think of Miguel Indurain who in 1996, having won five Tours in succession and entered the cycling pantheon, had to watch Bjarne Riis ride away from him and accept that his reign was over. That he did not climb off and head home but rather allowed himself to be beaten with good grace is, I believe, to his eternal credit. Contrast Indurain with Lance Armstrong, winner of seven Tours, who took his leave of the race with his record, and his reputation as a boorish, manipulative bully, safely intact; his return from retirement served only to reiterate how little he contributed to the Tour’s venerable traditions. In terms of the World Cup, greatness belongs in the images of Moore and Pele shaking hands in genuine respect, Cruyff’s balletic brilliance and, more recently, the South African team in song on its way to the pitch. Wayne Rooney’s spittle-flecked invective bemoaning his place in the critical spotlight is unlikely to make the cut.
Perhaps the spotlight is the issue. Everything in the modern age is magnified by television. Every event is covered, every action and reaction replayed, every nuance analysed in close up. It allows the viewer to see the most intimate moments and even the inner workings of the sportsperson’s mind: the disconnect between words and reality, the contradiction of the internal and external monologue, and sometimes just the struggle to lie their way out of a fix. Witness Roger Federer saying that reaching the quarter-finals of this year’s Wimbledon was a good result with body language that told of his despair or Frank Lampard saying that no one could tell him that Germany were that much better than England even as the scoreboard showed 4-1 and the crowd were telling him how lucky England had been to get away with that much of a beating. Watching the chancellor explaining why those on benefits must bear the responsibility for mending the nation’s finances broken by a wilfully reckless banking industry is another case in point but as it is a non-sporting example it will have to wait for another time; but that time will come very soon.
The spotlight also explains why so much is so wrong about so many of our modern sports. It is not just that the pursuit of television coverage and the money that is apparently inextricably linked to it has become the primary purpose of sport but that so much of what shapes our sporting structures and our sporting experiences – I’m thinking of the decisions, the deals, the contracts – is able to take place in the shadows. While the spotlight burns so brightly on the players, those with responsibility for the game continue in relative obscurity and with minimal accountability. It is telling that the Football Association – widely and correctly derided, not least in these pages, as one of the most gloriously inept and incompetent organisations on the face of the planet – has seen numerous sackings and resignations in recent times, almost all of which have been the result of horizontal pursuits rather than anything to do with the results of disastrous decisions about the future of the game. Personally, I have long looked forward (vainly I suspect) to the Premier League bubble bursting but in the meantime the World Cup, which has brought triumphs for some and the most ignominious and shaming defeat for others, should be taken as an opportunity for football to look at itself to see what it has become. Other sports might be well advised to do the same.
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