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Champions All Around

Another triumphant weekend for
British sport; what on earth is going on? 

After half a century of watching
and suffering as gallant Brits, heroically and gracefully, found an endlessly imaginative
variety of methods to lose at just about everything, it’s inevitable that people
of my generation are taking some time adjusting to the idea that we’ve finally,
collectively managed to up our game. 

“We don’t seem to be much good at
anything any more,” I remember my father wailing each time he’d witnessed yet
another valiant British sporting rearguard action.  These were not battles won on the playing
fields of Eton, but retreats achieved on the beaches of Dunkirk. He was far from alone in his
assessment.  It had become something of a
sporting cliché, a national mantra.  And
mantras, once established, are hard to dislodge.

“Any more” are the key words he
used.  Britain had once been good not only
at sport but at everything else – or so it was believed.  Since the loss of Empire, and the sacrifices
of war, somehow things had gone seriously wrong.  Amateur sociologists – and more than a few
professional ones – duly linked Britain’s
poor performances in the sporting arenas to the broader declines in industrial
and military power.  What else could
explain it?   Decline and fall measured as game, set and
match.  

But there was I, on Saturday
morning, watching the British and Irish Lions rugby team comprehensively whack Australia in Sydney, recording the first series victory
over the Wallabies in 17 years.  And next,
on Sunday, there’s Andy Murray doing what most Britons, right up to the moment
he stepped on court, had come to regard as unthinkable: a Brit winning Wimbledon.  It
hadn’t been done for 77 years.  As if
that were not enough, word came from across the Channel that David Froome, also
of this island parish, had emerged as leader in the Tour de France.  Nothing new there, of course, as our very own
Bradley Wiggins had won it the previous year.

Winning, they say, is contagious.
So it seems.  Just a month earlier, we
were toasting Justin Rose for winning the U.S. golf open.  A few months before that, but still fresh in
the memory, England’s
rugby team had thumped the All Blacks.  And
that triumph merely added to a growing reputation for British sporting excellence
derived from a record gold medal haul at the London Olympics – which topped the
second biggest tally won at the Beijing Olympics four years earlier.

Later this week, England will
begin the five-match campaign to retain – yes, retain, not regain – cricket’s
oldest trophy, known as the Ashes, against an Australian team that looks, at
least on paper, woefully inadequate for the challenge.  We shall see. 
The point is, though, that England’s role as firm favourites
is one that hasn’t been played for nearly a generation.  In my dismal mental library of recollections,
the Ashes urn was a trophy we were allowed to ‘borrow’ every once in a blue
moon, whenever the Aussies were going through a rare and temporary bad patch.

I repeat, what on earth is going on here?

Most of my life has been spent pondering,
admittedly without applying much profound thought to the matter, why Britain, still
in economic terms the fourth most powerful nation on earth, couldn’t seem to
win much of anything unless it involved horses or, occasionally, motor cars.  I never came up with a reason then, and I
don’t have one now.

We did have our isolated triumphs
even in the lean decades after the war.  Of
these, the earliest I can recall was Roger Bannister running the first mile in
less than four minutes.  But that now
seems to have occurred in a bygone age – 1954 actually sounds no less historical
as 1066 – and no one runs the mile, or miles, anymore. If Bannister’s feat was
supposed to inspire the nation to garner Olympic gold medals by the bushel, it
failed signally.  In a string of Games, right
up to Beijing in 2008, Britain never won more than a
handful.  I could probably still reel off
most of the names of the winners.  In Atlanta, in 1972, Britain managed just a single gold. 

Another rare achievement was England winning
the football World Cup in 1966, and that lingers in the memory because it was,
and remains, the solitary victory in the long history of the Jules Rimet trophy.   Since
then?  Zilch.  Nada. 
Bugger all.  But then football now
exists in a separate universe, a commercial ghetto, where nothing can be
related to the quest for British sporting achievement. 

There have been scattered British
sporting heroes all along.  Steve
Redgrave won gold in five successive Olympics, perhaps qualifying as the
greatest ever Olympian.  Sebastian Coe
set the athletics world alight for a while in the 1980s, with a brace of gold
medals.  David Beckham has become a world
fashion icon as well as a footballer.   But
heroes such as these were few and far between. 

Now, though, home-grown champions
seem to parade across our television screens in an endless procession.  As an Australian friend pointed out recently,
“You blokes were always whingeing Poms. 
Now you’re winning Poms.  We Aussies
used to be good at everything.  Now the
only thing we win is an occasional bloody coin toss”.

Sounds like my Dad, doesn’t he?

Just as I couldn’t come up with a
plausible reason for our failures, I can’t now conjure one up for our
successes.  If there are profound sociological
phenomena at work, I can’t think what they are.   In the long twilight of failure that I
remember, the popular theory was that Britain had gone soft, the result
of easy living.  But that doesn’t wash,
because now, in the bright sunlight of winning, we’re more affluent and
cosseted than ever.

We’re not winning as a result of massive
government funding.  The British
government never had either the will or the wherewithal to spray money around in
vast amounts in the way that countries of the Soviet bloc used to, turning
children into automatons, human bodies into drug laboratories and sometimes – or
so it was often alleged – ladies into gentlemen.  Apart from the lack of money, it wasn’t the
British way – not quite cricket.

It’s true that cycling and rowing
and a few other sports have attracted some public largesse, and the rewards are
there for all to see.  But they are
exceptions.  Nothing, as far as I know, has
been spent on rugby, tennis, golf and cricket – and not much on track and
field.      

In the end, I’m not sure that we
need to search for reasons for this sudden burst of sporting excellence.  Britain’s rise, and for that matter Australia’s
decline, are almost certainly no more or less than a passing phase – not a
revolution, but merely a single spin of a constantly spinning wheel of fortune
in an endless cycle, one that will almost certainly result, before long, in the
positions being reversed, before being reversed all over again.   

Does any of it matter at any
profound level?  Of course not, and nor
should it.  Britons didn’t have a spring
in the step setting off for work this morning just because Andy Murray – who
many Brits can’t stand as a boring Scottish bigot – has a shiny trophy on his
sideboard.  As for the Lions performance,
though undoubtedly fated to enter rugby legend, it wouldn’t have registered
with the vast majority of citizens who prefer the round-ball game, to which
rugby is regarded as no more than an incidental offshoot.  The politicians will try to exploit the victories,
of course, but that should neither surprise nor bother us.  They grasp at any straws, whether elections
loom or not.  (There is, as it happens,
an election looming for Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, and
he has duly made a spectacle of himself by shamelessly waving a giant saltire
at Wimbledon.)    

Yet in a way it does matter.  Many of us, without admitting that we care
too much, are quietly enjoying the new-found-whatever-it-is that is spurring
our sporting figures to glory.  I for one
can’t wait for the opening of the Ashes campaign on Wednesday, the next and
last sporting contest of the summer.  Another
celebration is in the offing, I confidently predict, and that’s something I can
honestly say I’ve never, ever been able to say before. 

So, come on, Cooky and Belly and
Broady (don’t ask!), let’s finish the job, before that wheel starts turning
full circle, as it inevitably will.

 

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