Athletics: Why the Paris moaners are on the wrong track

After a week of chasing shadows around Paris, the conclusion seems to be that our athletes have underperformed; and, in some cases, shamefully. There have been cries bemoaning the lack of medals and the absence of the anthem from the presentation ceremonies. Mitigating factors such the absence through injury of at least four major medal chances and the possibility our sprinters may yet recapture some pride in the relay tonight have been overlooked in the rush to condemn. Are we getting value for money? I heard more than one Radio 5 Live voice ask that question over the past few days, and you can think of organisations far more entitled to ask it than the BBC.

Two things have struck me about the World Athletics Championships. The first is that our attitude to our track-and-field performers is different to the way we regard other sportsmen who represent us; and, secondly, we have become so obsessed with our own interests that we neglect to look at events objectively.

It is said that Paula Radcliffe's absence from the 10,000 metres robbed the BBC of a 10 million audience. No one was interested in watching if Paula wasn't running. Such patriotic priorities are forgivable, but not to the extent that the nation ignores sporting magic in which we are not concerned. One of the most riveting races ever took place in the steeplechase on Tuesday night, when Saif Saeed Shaheen, a Kenyan who recently acquired Qatari nationality and a new name in a football-type transfer, fought a furious battle over the final laps before outrunning the brave challenge of his former countryman Ezekiel Kemboi.

There was little to be read about it in our newspapers; neither was there much coverage of the 400m when the Frenchman Marc Raquil put in a surging sprint to finish third behind Jerome Young. It was breathtaking; if he was a horse, we would have been castigating the jockey for leaving his run too late.

In most sports, we are too preoccupied with our own failings to salute the accomplishments of others. I suspect this is more acute in athletics, because most of our athletes are supported by the state via the Lottery, and that gives us a proprietorial interest in them that we do not have in our other sporting representatives. We do not ask about value for money when we get stuffed at cricket or football, or if our tennis players exit early. They get paid from other purses. God knows why, in some cases.

But athletes seem to be judged more harshly because they get grants, and this supposed lack of value for money, and Government sources have been repeating that phrase, causes idiotic calls for Lottery funds to be withheld from under-performers. It is conveniently forgotten that we have the worst sporting facilities in what is laughingly called the civilised world, and those who rise from that decay are well worth the financial support we give them in order that they can maximise their potential.

It was the smallest team we have sent to the World Championships, and our lack of success may be well worth examining. But let us not hide from the truth that we have been crap at encouraging sporting endeavour, and our share of top-flight glory is always more than we deserve.

Super stories

This weekend, the popular prints are awash with snippets - some authentic, most not - from David Beckham's new autobiography. Apparently, it is not the juiciest of books, because he has been restrained from fully spilling the beans.

However, we can depend on a bestseller worldwide, because it has been translated into several oriental languages and will appeal to millions of young ladies whose interest in Beckham does not run to who did what to whom in the Old Trafford dressing-room.

If Beckham feels any frustration about his voice being muffled he mustn't worry. He has the rest of his life to publish and be damned. Indeed, the market in meaty tomes about football folk is bulging with the reminiscences of players who had stopped performing long before Beckham was born.

Leaving aside George Best, who has done as much for printers as Caxton ever did, the number of old pros elbowing their way into the bookshops must have reached a record level. Some of England's World Cup 1966 winners are on their second or third editions. Geoff Hurst had a successful book out last year, and George Cohen followed suit in April. There's a new paperback on Gordon Banks, and my colleague James Lawton has just written a highly acclaimed autobiography on Nobby Stiles called After the Ball.

The exceptional career of John Charles has been twice revisited in print this year, Brian Clough has a new volume on sale, and Jimmy Greaves will be hitting the bookshops soon. I gather Dave Mackay is at work on his life story, and fellow Scot Denis Law is close to finishing his addition to the sagas of the greats.

To be able to pull readers in decades after the events is a testament not only to the everlasting attraction of real football tales featuring real people, but also to the dogged curiosity of those of us who still wonder what used to transpire behind the scenes.

In the latest epistle from the past, Malcolm Macdonald has some lurid tales to tell of his life as a player, manager, businessman and pundit. His autobiography, Super Mac (Highdown, £18.99), was written with Colin Malam, now retired after 30 years as football correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph. At a Sports Journalists' Association lunch last Tuesday, Macdonald talked us through some of his career, which began as a non-League full-back and ended as a goal-scoring hero for Luton, Newcastle United and Arsenal, where a crippling knee injury stopped him short at the age of 29.

He claims his England career was curtailed by a sour relationship with Don Revie, who didn't rate him. When he was selected to play against West Germany in 1975 he had a cold reception from Revie. The manager said that he'd been under pressure to pick him, and that if he didn't score he'd never pick him again.

Macdonald scored the second goal in a famous 2-0 victory and was chosen for the next game, which was against Cyprus. A similar frosty exchange took place, and Macdonald responded by scoring a record-equalling five goals.

Afterwards, Revie appeared unimpressed, and told him that BBC television wanted to interview him. Macdonald wondered why the TV crew were so offhand but it was only when he met the producer the following year that he discovered why. Revie had told them that Macdonald refused to appear unless he was paid £200 in cash. They had to have a hurried whip-round to raise the money.

Macdonald didn't receive a penny. He writes: "Revie not only refused to congratulate me for scoring five goals, he seemed to have made a few quid out of my achievement himself."

This is a sensational allegation against an England manager, and another reason why the books of old-stagers sell so well - you have to wait until people die before you get the best stories.

Comments