The idea that sport is in any way a morally improving activity should really be insupportable by now, after years of match-fixing, dope scandals and football-star spit-roasts. But the notion that it is character-building still stubbornly clings on. Competition, from Dr Arnold onwards, has been believed to anneal the soul and tutor the spirit. If Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport is to be believed, though, we should be protecting our children from exposure to school games, just in case they're unlucky enough to show some talent at them. Flintoff – both a darling and a monster of the red-top back pages – was exploring the subject of depression in sport, partly because of his own experience of a slump in form and morale, and partly because of what happened to his friend Steve Harmison. And the telling thing was that it didn't look as if he'd had trouble at all finding representative cases. Even Vinnie Jones pitched up to confess that he'd thought seriously about walking into the woods with a shotgun.
The really intriguing question here was whether depressive personalities are more likely to become top-level sportsman, or whether top-level sport is exceptionally good at creating depressives. An anecdotal documentary like this – principally devoted to the exemplary confession (designed to kill stigma and promote debate) – wasn't really in a position to decisively answer that question. But it did suggest that at its highest levels sport is intrinsically damaging. In some ways, bipolarity becomes your job in a world where you can never guarantee that a crushing failure isn't just around the corner. You're either on top of the world or a loser, and the knowledge that even sporting triumph is only temporary must have a debilitating effect, too. A novelist who has never won the Booker can still be consoled by the thought that posterity might one day put things right. But they don't decide a century later that actually you won that all-important championship final.
The machismo of much sport – the premium it often places on putting on a front – only makes things worse. Flintoff himself recalled being advised to swagger on to a cricket pitch as if he owned it, a concealment of feelings that gets carried back into the dressing room. And newspapers, impatient with what can simply look like spoiled bad behaviour, pile on even more pressure. Flintoff went to interview Piers Morgan about this aspect of the problem, and got some free coaching in how to dodge a difficult delivery. After being asked about the morality of a tabloid-monstering Harmison had been given, an unapologetic Morgan effectively replied, "It was your fault. You were captain. You exposed him to our brutality." "I wasn't expecting him to turn the tables and throw it back at me," said Flintoff afterwards. He clearly hasn't been watching the Leveson Inquiry.
I'm in touch with my feminine side," said Heston Blumenthal in last night's How to Cook Like Heston, as he prepared to make scrambled eggs with the ladies of the local WI. I don't think The Fabulous Baker Brothers are, though. I think they're terrified of it, because they're comically at pains to stress just how blokey their cooking is. It's not just that they boast of "a murderous sense of rivalry" at the beginning of the programme and bellow that "this is baking for boys". Even the way they handle their ingredients is ostentatiously butch. They slam puff pastry down on to the table as if they're about to wrestle with it, hurl ingredients into the mix from across the room and spit on the very notion of precise measurement. "I think you'll find those have whup-ass written all over them," one of them said, unveiling his entry for the head-to-head "Pie War" that features in every episode. They were sausage rolls, essentially. Calm down, lads. If you carry on like this, you might end up seriously depressed.Reuse content