Athletics: Alliteration gives British athletes a bad name

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The Independent Online
IT HAD to be a Yugoslavian football team, otherwise it didn't work. Then you could have the inspirational midfielder, Magic; the unreliable left-back, Panic; the midfield dynamo, Frantic, and his steadier team- mate, Realistic; the scorer given to over-the-top celebrations, Ecstatic. Or the ever predictable Antic - but he was real, and played for Luton Town, so he didn't count.

Schoolday memories aside, there is such a lot of harmless fun to be had with sporting names. The game goes on everywhere, a standing invitation to a playful parallel universe. An old game is being revived in athletics circles at the moment, which seems to have been given new life by the dramatic sprinting performances of America's Maurice Greene - or to give him his proper title, the Kansas Cannonball.

The principle is widely established in individual sports. Take something personal or geographical, add something alliterative. Thus we have the Dark Destroyer, the Louisville Lip and the Flying Finn (this has been recycled over the years for Paavo Nurmi, Juha Vaatainen and Lasse Viren, but is currently available once again).

Who thinks of these names? They do. "The man I'm calling the Kansas Cannonball..." You never hear that, do you? It's always them. They are calling someone something. And no one seems to know who "they" are. They only know that "they" means someone else, someone smarter, more on the ball. Someone who got in at the basement.

In the last couple of weeks, "they" have struck again - this time in Britain. Jason Gardener, a nice, politely spoken young man from the West Country who has recently broken 10 seconds for the 100 metres, is now being referred to as the "Bath Bullet".

Gardener may have a shaven head, but the term bullet simply doesn't fit with him. Or with Bath, come to think of it. Much too brash. Much too American.

As with song titles about places, the name game doesn't seem to work when you get to Britain. It's the "Twenty four hours from Tulse Hill" factor. Try it. Colwyn Bay Dreaming. Surfin' UK. Sweet Home Altrincham. York, York. See what I mean?

What I don't understand is this: if they didn't call Linford Christie the Northwood Nuke or the Shepherd's Bush Stormer (and, sensibly, they didn't) then why give Gardener the US treatment?

And what about his fellow British sprinters - why have they been left out? Dwain Chambers. He would have to be the Finsbury Park Flyer, I suppose. Unless you wanted to use his current location and call him the Hornsey Hustler. No. Not so good. Hornsey Hurrier? No. Hornsey Harrier? Wrong distance.

Then there is Britain's European champion, no less, Darren Campbell. Why haven't "they" been calling him the Moss Side Meteor all these years?

It is a mysterious process all right. Some names stick; some don't. Some simply won't.

Five years ago, in the aftermath of his 400m victory at the European Championships in Helsinki, the emergent and flamboyant figure of Du'Aine Ladejo set about the task of polishing up his brand image. Du'Aine's family nickname, his sister confided, was Quiet Storm, presumably because beneath the apparently placid exterior there rumbled huge and powerful forces. All that kind of thing.

Soon afterwards, a Quiet Storm promotions agency was set up. Its life was brief. I personally never heard anyone in athletics refer to Ladejo as Quiet Storm. Perhaps he would have had more success if he had stuck to the tried and tested formula and called himself the St John's Wood Whizz. Or perhaps not.

The problem for Ladejo and other athletes with improbable nicknames is the credibility gap, the point where aspirations and reality part company.

It is the same thing you see when you go to a football match - all these balding, full-bellied middle-aged blokes in David Ginola or Dennis Bergkamp replica shirts. No, that is what I call fantasy football.

The other danger of the name game is that if the name sticks it can eventually become no more than a forlorn appendage or a remembrance of things past, like a wrinkled tattoo on an old man's forearm.

Three years ago I recall hearing Muhammad Ali, his speech affected by Parkinson's syndrome, struggling to articulate his feelings after lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta. The memory of that old monicker given to him in the distant, motormouth days of his youth, the Louisville Lip, served as a cruel and poignant reminder.

But that's enough of sadness. If you'll excuse me, I'll return to my fun and games of happier times... So then you'd be the goalkeeper prone to catastrophic error - Tragic - and you'd have that scourge of the referees - Sarcastic - and that butt of terrace abuse - Pathetic - and the no- nonsense defender - Basic...

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