Olympic lesson in pride and prejudice
22:22 GMT, 28 July 2012
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A few nights ago, Sir Michael
Parkinson stood in a London church and spoke about sport. In the course
of an elegant oration, he quoted the distinguished American jurist,
Chief Justice Earl Warren, who said that when he picked up his morning
paper, he always turned first to the sports pages ‘because they record
man’s successes. The front page records only his failures’.
Now, Parkinson was addressing a
congregation consisting largely of sports journalists, at a service to
welcome the world’s media to the London Olympics. Since he is himself
an eminent sports writer, he is naturally anxious to champion his own
branch of the national media.
Indeed, when he cited the ancient jibe
that sport is ‘the toy department’ of newspapers, he did so with a
snort of contempt which fairly rattled the stained glass of St Bride’s
in Fleet Street.
Had this been merely a piece of
special pleading, then his words would have faded with the evening. In
fact, he was making a much broader point about the place of sport in
Making his point: Michael Parkinson
Because he knows, as most of us know,
that this is a nation in which sport is officially indulged rather than
celebrated. Instead of commanding a prominent place on the national
agenda, it occupies a frivolous status on the fringe of affairs.
We are aware that it can involve and
beguile and change the course of listless lives. We accept that it
possesses an almost unique capacity to create a national air of pride
and well–being, since we are reminded of that stunning reality on a
daily, hourly basis by the extraordinary events in East London.
We have all the evidence we need that
intelligent investment in coaching and facilities can yield
spectacular social benefits. Yet still we sacrifice our sports fields to
supermarkets, still we allow the Education Secretary to decimate school
sports programmes with scarcely a yelp of disapproval and still we
appoint enthusiastic, well-meaning Sports Ministers while denying them
the funds or the powers to make a difference.
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In fairness, sport does little to help
itself. Unlike other, more successful lobbies, its demands are muted,
its influence restrained.
It is too grateful, too compliant. It
much prefers to doff the cap when it ought to be thumping the table. It
succumbs too readily to antediluvian stereotypes involving brawn and
brain, muddied oafs and flannelled fools.
Yet sport is better than that. It is
better than Anton Ferdinand and John Terry screeching vile insults and
passing them off as harmless banter.
It is better than two thugs profiting
obscenely from an odious scuffle in a gutter. It is better than the
tribal ugliness which disfigures so many of our football grounds each
It is far, far better than its most unsavoury headlines and its more squalid practitioners.
Sorry scenes: Anton Ferdinand and John Terry hurled obscenities at one another
The dominance of football in this country does not invariably assist the cause of sport. The national game has earned the popularity it enjoys, yet it threatens to devour itself in its obsession with wealth and its disdain for civilised standards. It is moving into worrying territory, where success justifies every excess, while doubts and reservations are treated like base treachery. But for millions upon millions, sport is the passion of our youth and the enchantment of our maturity. When we watched the athletes parade in the Olympic Stadium on Friday evening, we were watching role models in the truest meaning of the term; the kind of people we might have become had we only possessed the drive, determination, and God-given talent.
In the course of the next few weeks, we shall be made aware of their shortcomings. Cheats will be exposed, drug-takers will be revealed and the usual quota of scandals will become fodder for public debate. But, by and large, the good guys will win, the rascals will fade and fail and a kind of nobility will prevail. Because, stripped of its cynicism, such is the way of sport.
Let the games begin: Argentina's athletes make their way into the Olympic Stadium
Of course, the more arrogant critics will continue to regard the entire phenomenon as something vulgar and demeaning; so oikish, so dreadfully sweaty. What is the point of it all Why the misplaced enthusiasm Read a book, go to a theatre, listen to decent music; in short, enjoy the higher things.
They do not share, nor do they begin to comprehend our passionate enchantment. Instead, they leave that kind of thing to the toilers in the toy department. Where successes are recorded and failures are frequently indulged and invariably regretted. And the Olympic Games are the summit of our aspirations and the delight of our days.
Anthems fiasco is an own goal by the patriotism police
It seems that certain British Olympic athletes are declining to sing the National Anthem. Two or three Welshmen, at least one Scottish lady. Footballers, of course. What can you expect
Anyway, their base treachery has been noted by the patriotism police and retribution will follow.
It is, of course, a wonderfully ludicrous operation: waiting for the band to strike up, studying the faces and making impertinent assessments of an individual’s loyalty and character.
But there is also a deeply unpleasant strain of vulgar bullying: ‘We will set the rules of patriotism and you will obey. We Have Ways Of Making You Sing!’
Anthem snub: Ryan Giggs (right) and Neil Taylor (second left) did not sing along
It worked, quite recently, on Roy Hodgson. Just a few strident headlines and the England manager was instructing his charges to bawl out the familiar words; like it or not. Wayne Rooney, who had hitherto denied us his vocal talents, was suddenly joining in with the rest. One-up to the hawk-eyed upholders of all that is right and fitting.
And the truth is that we’re really not that sort of people. As that glorious opening ceremony demonstrated, we are droll, whimsical and occasionally perverse. We dislike being instructed on how to behave by people wholly unqualified to offer such instruction.
It is one of our oldest and most endearing traits. In any case, our history has earned us the right to exercise our own choice on these matters. Again, it is central to who we are.
Something else: when I learned that Ryan Giggs, Neil Taylor et al were all resolute non-singers, I tried to remember how earlier British Olympians had reacted on the podium. In particular, I cast my mind back to Los Angeles ’84 and the victory ceremony of the 1500metres.
Hard to be certain after all these years but I could almost swear that the winner did not throw back his head and belt out a demand for the deity to guard and preserve the monarch.
The subversive young man in question was Sebastian Coe.
I’ve no idea what he’s doing these days but I’ll bet he’s up to no good.
Amid the Olympic miracles and wonders, one nugget was almost overlooked. Fabio Capello, who once rubbed along on 6million a year as manager of England, has somehow persuaded Russia to pay him 7.8m.
Astonishingly, he looks back on his barren sojourn in this country as some kind of golden age. ‘I achieved everything I wanted to achieve in England,’ he says.
Still, he has great hopes of the Russians, although he intends to change their mind-set. ‘At this level, it’s often in your head,’ he explains. Or, in Fabio’s case, his pocket.
No wonder he's smiling: Fabio Capello has trousered millions to manage Russia