Experiencing highs and lows of plane speaking

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The Independent Online
A COLLEAGUE of mine recently had the fortune to find himself sitting next to Tony Banks on a flight home from Geneva.

Having fuelled the fire being lit under the feet of England's doomed manager, Glenn Hoddle, the Minister for Sport had spent two days sticking it to the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland over their ill- conceived strategy for doping control.

In the course of the two-hour return flight, my friend may have mused on the dizzying number of conversational gambits likely to jump-start the loquacious Banks. Or he may not. At any rate, no great exchange of ideas took place.

"I couldn't think what to ask him," said my colleague. It would have been easy for me to have laughed. And, in fact, it was easy. But then I thought on, as they say in places like Coronation Street. I tried to recall some of my great interviews with subjects I had encountered in planes. And I began to feel less smug.

Well, let me see now. There was the Judy Oakes interview, conducted somewhere over India on the return journey from the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games. How did that opening line go as Britain's multiple shot putt champion passed down the aisle? Ah yes. "All right, Judy?" The interviewee, beaten to the gold by her domestic rival Myrtle Augee, responded with a brave smile which it pains me to recall. "Felt better," she replied, her face pale with disappointment. Actually, it looked as if she had been crying. Good one.

Talking to the British bobsleigh coach, Tom de la Hunty, on the way back from last year's Winter Olympics in Nagano was a fundamentally different experience. Buoyed up by the first British bobsleigh medal at the Games since Dixon and Nash's victory in 1964, the voluble RAF physical training instructor was congeniality itself as he took up an unofficial posting as bar steward.

Hunting and gathering tins of lager in a way that any cave-dwelling ancestor would have appreciated, De la Hunty, a member of Britain's two-man bob at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, took me and the other team members who were listening on a lightning trip around his old bobsleigh haunts - Winterberg, La Plagne, Cortina - before flashing onwards to a condemnation of the tampering which had seen Switzerland's top sled ruled illegal and then coming to a gradual halt over the topic of escalating tension between the West and Iraq. If things, as he put it, "kicked off", then his leave was cancelled and he would be involved in monitoring levels of hazard from any biological warfare.

Preoccupied by this disturbing vision, and with the keen blade of my mind blunted as a result of De la Hunty's successful foraging, I returned to my seat and forgot all the details. I'm sorry, but there it is.

A discussion I had with some members of the British women's hockey team coming home from the Barcelona Olympics was equally lively, and equally useless, save for one small detail.

The players were in high spirits - at least - after earning bronze medals, and a sense of playfulness informed their progress past me towards the back of the plane. After asking a familiar question - "What are you writing then?" - they craned over my shoulder to see the words on my computer screen. One of the players - it might have been that Jane Sixsmith - pointed with biblical authority to a word in my copy. Incorrectly spelt. And do you know? They seemed to think that was amusing in some way.

Useful things I have learned while aboard an aeroplane probably boil down to this: your feet swell up on long-haul flights and, in the unlikely event of oxygen masks being required, cigarettes should be extinguished.

In truth, I ought to add another thing to that list. When you are eating in-flight meals, the stuff in the thin paper tube is sugar, not salt. Salt is in the little sachets and tastes quite different.

One memorable, if brief, exchange of words does stick in my memory, although it came not in a plane, but in an airport terminal. Thankfully I was a witness rather than a participant when a fellow member of Her Majesty's Press asked the driver of Britain's Olympic bobsleigh bronze medallists, Sean Olsson, to display the fruits of his labours in Nagano.

Olsson obliged, swinging the heavy disc proudly from its ribbon.

"Very nice," said my friend. "Bet you wish it was gold." It was a risky thing, no, a foolhardy thing to say to a 15-stone SAS paratrooper. For a moment there was what you might call an awkward pause.

Then Olsson spoke: "It's gold to me."

Now that was a good line.