Athletics: They were British. They didn't want a scene

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is such a thing as national character, it surely resides in the British athletics supporter.

When Britain's men retained the European Cup in St Petersburg a couple of months ago, their success was witnessed by a group of about 80 spectators holding little Union Jacks - about the size you would put into the top of a sandcastle - and bearing the odd, daring banner. Example: `Go, Go, Jo!' When the Greeks talked about moderation in all things, they knew what they were about. Socrates would have been proud of these passionate, civilised people perched in the glaring concrete edifice of the Petrovsy Stadium. That is if he could, by some mysterious process, have been there, preferably with a working knowledge of the European Cup points-scoring system. Which, of course, he wasn't.

Anyway, the Brits were out in force, the majority of them wearing white, floppy hats to guard against a sun which hammered down on the back of their necks and bounced back into their faces off the previously mentioned glaring concrete.

Worse than just glaring, in fact. Crumbling. If this stadium really was Russia's finest athletics arena - as the man on the loudspeaker claimed - there was nothing to do but be thankful the competition was not taking place in one of the sub-standard structures.

In this challenging environment, the travelling Brits showed their true red, white and blue colours. They cheered. They clapped. They waved their Union Jacks. And they shouted things like `Come on!' and `Well done!' At any moment, I expected someone to start up with `Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate.' And at the end of the day they had their moment of triumph, shifting along the stand to get a better view of the presentation ceremony on the infield, then smiling indulgently as the team members performed the ritual of dumping the chief coach, and one or two unfortunate characters from their midst, in the steeplechase water jump. All good clean fun.

Soon, too soon, the supporters were consulting their watches and gathering up their rucksacks. The bus back to the hotel awaited them, and with it the fearsomely hard-line official guide. It's just a guess, but I think she regarded the fall of the Berlin Wall as no more than a nasty rumour.

"Shall I give the microphone over to you now?" she had enquired with an acid smile as her early-morning tour of St Petersburg's landmarks - short on historical detail but long on the exact heights and weights of the city's statuary - was infringed by a couple of murmured conversations.

The conversations ceased - not because of the telling off, but because of embarrassment. We were British. And we did not want a scene.

Periodically, promoters of athletics meetings in Britain attempt to jazz up things. This has usually involved the frequent playing of anthems by Queen and Tina Turner - you can guess which ones - and the use of son et lumiere effects to (literally) spotlight events.

There have been times, sitting in Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, when I have wondered if I have come on the wrong day and am, in fact, watching a TV recording of Gladiators.

Perhaps they view things differently abroad. At last year's meeting in Brussels, I witnessed Daniel Komen of Kenya breaking the world 5,000 metres record amid a confused tumult of noise, only part of which was the encouragement of the crowd. The announcer was yelling advice, and to the side of the main scoreboard, a group of tribal drummers pounded out an unrelenting beat.

Earlier this week at the Zurich grand prix, Swiss athletics followers packed the Letzigrund Stadium - which has the ear-buzzing acoustics of Wimbledon's old home at Plough Lane - and, as is their wont, chanted the names of competitors like Lars Riedel and Sergei Bubka as if they were a football crowd.

No doubt this is the stuff of a British promoter's dream. But these things are simply not meant to happen here.

At last year's British trials in Birmingham, the organisers attempted to enliven proceedings by employing the exuberant, and very very loud disc jockey, Fat Freddy M, as master of ceremonies. Fat Freddy did what he did best, to the best of his abilities. But he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As his rap-style rhetoric rose to supersonic level during the introductions for the climactic event, the 400 metres, the gathering dissent from the thermos-carrying inhabitants of the main stand formed itself into an unheard- of expression - boos. They were British. They didn't want a scene. But sometimes a point has to be made...