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

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.

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.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor