FOOTBALL: Why I will never call into question the exploits of our world-conquering dames

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The Independent Online
IT IS desperately pitiful, I always think, when those who merely write about sport attempt to garner some reflected glory from those who actually participate. One sees it a lot, the paunchy hack either figuratively or literally bellowing "I was there" about some marvellous achievement, as if it could not have happened without him. Or, far less frequently, and always less paunchily, without her.

Having said that, should any future biographers attempt to weave together the uplifting stories of their dameships Kelly Holmes and Ellen MacArthur - much as Donald McRae so expertly connected the stories of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens in his wonderful book In Black & White - they will be struck by the discovery that on a day not long before they embarked on their all-conquering exploits, both women had the name Brian Viner scribbled in their diaries.

It might be pure coincidence that I was the last person to conduct a major newspaper interview with each of them before they achieved greatness, but I prefer to conclude otherwise. I think that maybe there was something in my firm handshake and level gaze that inspired them, and that, just possibly, Dame Kelly saw the effortless way I overtook the cleaner as we walked along an upstairs corridor at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, and thought, "That's the way to do it - on the outside!" Similarly, when in November I told Dame Ellen of the problems I had had with Great Western Railways in getting down to Falmouth by 1pm, she probably thought, "If he can manage to get by train to Cornwall by lunchtime, then surely I can get around the world by 9 February!"

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the psychological state I found them in. Dame Kelly, in particular, was full of gloom. She told me that the Athens Olympics would be her last and that her deeds there would determine how others would judge her entire athletics career. She did not expect to do well, and so did not expect posterity to look upon her career with more than a non-committal shrug. Just a fortnight before Athens she wasn't at all sure whether to run the 1500m as well as the 800m. Her form wasn't great, and plainly her mindset was terrible.

Dame Ellen was more upbeat. Yet she too was assailed by doubts. She would give it her very best shot but did not really expect to break Francis Joyon's multihull record, at least not at the first attempt. I had met her twice before but this was the first time I had heard her talk negatively.

I found it interesting this week to reflect on those two encounters, not least because it was also a week when England's footballers, cricketers and rugby players, with their histrionic motivational techniques and faintly embarrassing team hugs, all either failed, or failed to impress. It seemed significant that the two most thrilling sporting images of the last six months - that sudden radiant beam of Holmes as she realised she had won Olympic gold, and MacArthur's joyful jig aboard B&Q - captured women who had set off on their quests alone, introspective, and anxious.

Their achievements also shed some interesting light on the English psyche. Had the oracle at Delphi, just up the road from Athens, assured us before the Olympics that a female athlete would be coming home to a damehood and the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, most of us would have put our shirts on it being Paula Radcliffe. The way in which we subsequently embraced Dame Kelly and, relatively, shunned plain Paula, shows how dreadfully fickle we are.

A related dimension of Englishness was evident in the way some commentators sought to diminish MacArthur's achievement: on the very day of her homecoming the cover of The Guardian's second section was emblazoned with the question, "What is it about Ellen ... the world-beater we can't quite come to love?"

This led to an entertaining slanging match down Farringdon Road way, with the chief sports writer Richard Williams launching a withering attack the following day on the "stupidity" of some of his colleagues. Far be it from me to take sides in internecine squabbles at The Guardian, but it did seem dispiritingly English to snipe at one of our own for being unlovable, for being a whinger, for having far too much technology and being way too media-savvy, on the day her heroics were acclaimed by the rest of the world.

Anyway, what's all this about Dame Ellen being unlovable? I've always found her extremely engaging. And I expect she speaks highly of me.