Image and profile count for a lot in sport these days. You’re not a true superstar unless you have the right exposure in the relevant outlets. Merely being on telly, plugging the odd video game and having a five-figure follower count on Twitter don’t cut it any more. There are panel shows, chat shows and sponsorship junkets to negotiate and under no circumstances should you embarrass yourself or admit anything newsworthy – like, for example, recounting the time you defecated in your own shorts during a World Cup game.
Gary Lineker will have known this, no doubt, as he sashayed down the studio steps to the couch on Jack Whitehall’s Backchat last week. The “national treasure”, as Whitehall called him, did well for most of the show, mainly by smiling and keeping his mouth shut as the host and his father (a regular on the show as a curmudgeonly old fogey) verbally danced around him with risqué jokes and taunts about signing for Tottenham (Whitehall is an Arsenal fan).
He did look genuinely nervous as Whitehall Snr quizzed him about his wife Danielle, beginning with a long and winding question which opened with the advantages of marrying someone 19 years his junior.
But that was nothing compared to his story of the 1990 World Cup, which he told after some vigorous prompting from Whitehall Jnr. Lineker recalled the group game against the Republic of Ireland, how he wasn’t feeling well and in the 19th minute went to tackle a full-back and “inadvertently relaxed”. In case the viewers hadn’t cottoned on to what he was confessing, Whitehall’s jaw dropped in mock outrage: “You shat yourself during a game?” Lineker nodded ruefully. The rest of us wondered how we would ever look at Match of the Day in the same way again.
There was worse to come, in Lineker’s eyes. The other guests were members of Geordie Shore, the show seen by many as evidence that Scotland’s independence drive should include Tyneside. And whatever pre-show swotting he had done, nothing will have prepared him for talk about “shaving my fairy” and other euphemisms for the component parts of the human farmyard area. Lineker winced, at the same time as wiping away tears of laughter. “I have cultivated a decent image for the last 30 years and it has been destroyed on one single show,” he said between guffaws.
It hadn’t of course; he had enhanced it. The man who famously was never sent off as a player seems more of a good sport than ever.
Speaking of profile, a race which flew under almost everyone’s radars, the second annual Piece of String run, took place over the weekend. It is, as the name implies, a race where the participants start not knowing how far they have to run to the finish. It wasn’t on TV or radio (perish the thought) but was easy to follow via Twitter.
It started somewhere in Berkshire on Friday morning and ended almost 130 miles later on Saturday night, with Terrence Zengerink and Ben Hall the joint winners. As crazy as the Piece of String sounds, to some it represents the ideal test of the mental side of endurance sport. None of the runners have any public profile whatsoever, but there is no doubting the size of their hearts.