Familiar story of success followed by failure

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The Independent Online
I LIKE TO think I'm efficient when it comes to financial matters. I'm not, but I like to think I am.

The other night, for instance, I had some household bills to sort out, so I got straight down to the business of watching this extremely interesting documentary about volcanoes.

The basic format was that you were shown an interview with a vulcanologist, as those who study volcanoes term themselves, then you were shown extended footage of red-hot lava shooting into the air and mountain peaks sporting mile-high plumes of ash. Then you were told that the vulcanologist, tragically, died in the eruption.

As I pondered on the psychology of the average vulcanologist - when they're not standing on the smoking rim of a volcano, do they like to fill their time by dangling off high ledges or hopping on the edge of train platforms? - I was told something which has since made me rather thoughtful.

We are all, apparently, composed of atoms released by volcanic eruptions. The fire, according to the narrator's closing line, is in all of us. I'm not sure that I like this recycled idea. After all, if my body is just a compilation of old bits, that might mean my mind is also just...

Let's leave that particular line of enquiry for now. But let's stay with the recycling idea, because, unless we are talking about newspapers, bottles and cans, it is not something we like to dwell on. Because it diminishes our individuality.

Even the forms of words which sum up the cyclical experience of human life have been constantly recycled: "There's nothing new under the sun," or, as Somerset Maugham put it, "the greatest truths are too important to be new."

Nowhere is this more true than in sport, the symbolic arena where human triumphs and disasters find constant expression. Thus football teams rise and fall like dynasties; athletes arrive, flourish and fade. Success is cyclical - yet people seem unwilling either to acknowledge or accept this basic fact.

A couple of years ago there was a large din made, on the airwaves and in the columns of newspapers, and the burden of it was this: Britain is an Olympic failure, a nation of faded glory.

That only one gold medal was secured from the 1996 Atlanta Games, courtesy of the rowers Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, certainly served to strengthen the claims of those who wrote the whole campaign off as a disaster.

Had Jonathan Edwards' foot been one centimetre further back on the triple- jump take-off board when he took flight on what was the longest effort of the final, Britain would have had a gold in the athletics as well, rather than the silvers contributed by Edwards, Steve Backley, Roger Black and the 400-meters relay team.

Shortly before he resigned as executive chairman of the troubled British Athletic Federation last year, Professor Peter Radford gave a speech to a gathering of reporters which detailed the difficulties involved in bringing together all the disparate elements within the sport.

Radford, a keen historian of his own sport, was not using his own words, but those of his distant predecessor Harold Abrahams, the Olympic 100m champion celebrated in the film Chariots of Fire. Forty years on, the problems facing the man in charge of British athletics - the rivalries, the enmities - remained the same. Only the names had changed, that is, the majority of them.

Among the exhibits at the recent 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1948 London Olympics was a selection of newspaper reports from the time. John Macadam's column in The Express, written shortly before the Games got underway at Wembley Stadium, had a curiously familiar ring to it.

"Now," he wrote, "what's all this about the decadence of British sport? What's all this nonsense about the vanished will-to-win? Is Denis Compton decadent? Kindlier communities give other athletes Orders of Merit for less.

"Is the hurdling boy Birrell decadent? Is the ambling Churcher, the heaven- sent Holden? By the Lord Harry - no! There are as good British fish in the athletic sea as ever came out of it, and all they need to get them in proper condition is competition."

For "competition," nowadays, you might read "competition plus National Lottery grants." Many of those who raised the profile of British athletics last month by earning nine gold medals at the European Championships did so against a background of full-time training thanks to central funding.

However, the subsequent failure of some of those athletes to go on and beat the best in the world has already caused the large din to re-emerge in some quarters: "The 2000 Olympics are almost upon us and where are the Coes of yesteryear?"

Coes come and Coes go. Plus ca change. But then you will have read that before.