You could tell he really was sorry. He really had wanted to damage him more severely.

MIKE ROWBOTTOM ON saying sorry when you don't mean it
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Watching the president of Japan's ruined Yamaichi bank bowing and screaming in shame on television this week, I thought: "Now that is what I call an apology."

While the performance lacked a dramatic climax - the ritual thrust of a samurai sword seemed the logical coup de theatre - there was no denying the fact that the man looked really sorry. He might even have been sorry.

Forgive the cynicism. Perhaps I have been involved in sport for too long.

Let me rephrase that. I have to hold up my hand for that lapse of taste. It was bad timing more than anything else, but I accept that it must have looked bad.

In the world of sport, apology now plays as large a part as psychology. For every winner, there is at least one loser who is obliged to explain his or her self to the world.

Defeated tennis players seem to have a particularly hard time of it - perhaps because their failings are registered in hard statistics.

There is no hiding place for the tennis loser. The rules of the Tour demand that they make themselves available for media questions such as: "You double faulted at 40-30 and 2-5 down in the first. Just how important do you think that was in retrospect?" Or: "You only managed to get in 37 per cent of your first serves today. How do you explain that?"

Bowing and screaming in shame is not something that occurs at this juncture, although you could almost forgive such behaviour in the circumstances.

Perhaps it is only fair that tennis players have a range of excuses available to them which matches the extent of potential reproaches.

"My backhand wasn't grooving properly... she kept going wide to my forehand... I thought the court favoured her topspin." Or if all else fails, "I wasn't moving well," which pretty much covers everything.

Athletes too have a rich store of excuses available for poor performances. Beaten in a sprint to the line? You haven't done your speed training yet. Lost touch on the penultimate lap? Your winter endurance work was affected by a virus. Even the old-fashioned stitch can be adduced as exhibits for the defence.

But the runner's ultimate standby resides in a simple phrase - "on the day." Thus it is possible in defeat to praise your opponent freely as long as you finish by attaching these three little words to your statement. Like a limpet mine.

"He ran a better race... on the day." But on another day I will beat him into the ground, because everybody knows I am better and faster than he is and he just got lucky today.

Football managers also have their favoured verbal formula. The phrase "not making any excuses" has been widely employed for years to good effect. "We were down to a skeleton squad beforehand, and once Mobbsy and Dobbsy went off, we were always going to struggle. But I'm not making any excuses..." Or a stylistic variation: "I don't like making excuses, but it was so slippery out there our lads should have brought their toboggans..."

Apologies on the pitch offer players wide opportunities to develop their skills in the field of acting and, in some cases, mime. After you have hacked over a forward just outside the box, the simulation of graceful diving actions may steer the referee towards offering you the benefit of the doubt. If the referee is having none of it, however, you may then switch into the mode made popular in the late 1960s by Leeds United's archetypal hard man, Norman Hunter.

Hunter's "aw shucks" grin was in its way a more truly terrifying sight than the grisly deeds which preceded it. The whole performance was so consummate you could only think it had benefited from practice. "No Norman, a little more expressive with the body language. That's right, hunch those shoulders, spread those palms. Now you're looking innocent..."

I noted a darker variation on the Hunter approach in a recent European Cup match when Feyenoord's Argentinian forward Cruz gave Manchester United's Gary Neville the most malevolent smile I think I have ever seen on a human face.

At the time he was fulfilling the referee's demand that he shake the full-back's hand after elbowing him in the eye. And as he stared into Neville's face, you could tell he really was sorry. He really had wanted to damage him more severely.

Saying sorry when you really don't mean it is not something that is restricted to the football field, of course. When it comes to doubletalk, a personal favourite is the statement released by Canada's Olympic 100 metres champion, Donovan Bailey, the day after Michael Johnson had pulled up half-way through this year's one $1m (pounds 590,000) sprint challenge in Toronto.

"I have tremendous respect for Michael's athletic ability," the statement read. "And I hope the injury he has sustained is not season-threatening."

Noble sentiments from a man who, the previous night, had grinningly called the Olympic 200m and 400m champion a "faker and a chicken."

Johnson's demeanour when the Canadian media put Bailey's comments to him was restrained. He did not bow, or scream. "Next question," he said. Now there was a man who was truly sorry - that he had ever agreed to the race in which he had just taken part.