Britain is becalmed in zone of mediocrity

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The Independent Online

There are no doubt many definitions of a third-class sporting nation, but here is something for starters: in successive weeks its landscape is dominated by three sportsmen of flawless character and stunning talent, Pete Sampras, Lennox Lewis, and Tiger Woods, and the reaction is not dancing in the streets but a fear of mass descent into catatonia.

There are no doubt many definitions of a third-class sporting nation, but here is something for starters: in successive weeks its landscape is dominated by three sportsmen of flawless character and stunning talent, Pete Sampras, Lennox Lewis, and Tiger Woods, and the reaction is not dancing in the streets but a fear of mass descent into catatonia.

Really, what is it about excellence which makes us so uneasy and, in a dismaying number of cases, even bored?

How can it be that one national newspaper puts up a headline, "Is Tiger too good for the game?" - did Michelangelo set too high standard for interior decoration ? - and the editor of another suggests to a Radio Five audience that as role models for young Britons go, Ian Wright, the serial football lout, has an edge on the phenomenal Woods?

It is, you have to suspect, an appalling statement of inadequacy. We can indulge, even celebrate the thuggish activities of a Vinnie Jones on the football field - and even pay him to write sneering references to a "goody two-shoes" like Gary Lineker, a world-class performer of unblemished disciplinary record. We can lard with spurious drama the essentially pathetic failure of a Paul Gascoigne to protect and develop his talent and follow each stage of his decline agog. Yet, if one got the mood of St Andrews right, the climactic point of the first phase of The Tiger's conquest of golf would have been happily exchanged for something more along the lines of Jean Van de Velde's tragi-comic squandering of the prize.

Failure, especially if it involves a shortfall in professional discipline when attached to significant ability, gives us some kind of dubious rush.

However, mastery, the relentless gathering up of natural gifts and the vital lessons on how to make them work, tends to provoke a yawn. We should see somebody about it. Perhaps in America, where Michael Jordan was deified entirely because of his soaring merit as a professional athlete and Joe Di Maggio went to his grave revered not for his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe but a relentless adherence to the values and demands of his game. It is true that the even more admired Babe Rube broke most of those rules, but not at the expense of staggering achievement. Of course American sport has other problems, not least a thinly disguised racism, but they do not include an unwillingness to understand, and salute extraordinary talent harnessed to serious discipline.

Here, we seem most comfortable huddled into a zone of mediocrity. Certainly it is interesting to note the source of the most spontaneous and ungrudging reaction in British golf to the brilliance of Woods. It came from Nick Faldo, old Mr Grumpy himself. Why, we have to ask, was that? Why is it that while Colin Montgomerie, the most talented of Europe's golfers for so long but one in increasingly desperate pursuit of his first major, can sometimes scarcely bear to mention the name of Woods, Faldo throws palms at the feet of the messiah? The answer, I would submit, is simple enough. It is because Faldo has gone a long way along the road of Woods, winning six majors without ever feeling the full warmth of a proud nation. Faldo never enjoyed Woods' sublime talent, but as a young man he shared the same will, the same competitive character and that is why he stands so far ahead of all his British contemporaries. Faldo slaved and agonised and hurt, and it simply never occurred to him that he had to play other games, that he had to seduce his public with drollery or some practised laddishness.

Shortly before successfully defending his 1989 Masters title, Faldo told me, "I don't really think the British people quite understand how hard it is to become the best in the world, and still less how tough it is to stay on top.

"That really is the hard part.

"You get to a certain point and the temptation is to think, oh, well, I'm there now, maybe I can cruise along a bit. But of course you can't. The moment you do that, you're out of it. Maybe at times I've been a little bit too deeply into the tunnel, but it took that to get where I am. When you're young every little thing is vital to your progress. You don't leave any stone unturned. You give what you're doing everything you have. In Britain I think we should maybe understand a little more that this is what it takes to get to world-class in any walk of life. If the price is being regarded as some kind of loner, well, I've always been prepared to pay it."

Much earlier in his career, when he was still a teenager, Faldo told me over lunch in Welwyn Garden City, "My ambition is to be a golf machine, a perfectly grooved golf machine." The idea seems surreal now when you look across the embattled barricades of British sport, when Ecuador slap us down in the Davis Cup, when we trail out of Euro 2000, when Tim Henman carries a lone flag at Wimbledon, and when our strongest finisher in the Open, Darren Clarke, cannot encounter Gary Player without drawing a lecture on the need for a fitness regime.

It was perhaps significant that when Mark James so gratuitously and publicly insulted Faldo, the bulk of professional support went to the former Ryder Cup captain and not the man who had produced the match-winning performance at Oak Hills just four years ago. Of course Faldo has been surly and egocentric down the years. Of course he has been most concerned about his own place in the shifting fortunes of arguably the most capricious of all the front-line professional sports. But we can presume that his letter of support for the European team was sincerely meant, and when James "binned it" so contemptuously he was also discarding something else. It was respect for unprecedented British achievement in golf, a willingness to take a winner on his own singular terms. Perhaps it is also significant that the warmth displayed towards Faldo in the galleries of St Andrews had something to do with his new status as a chaser rather than a leader.

Certainly the evidence is overwhelming that our greatest enthusiasm is for the extent of the colourful "character" rather than the stature of our heroes. Lennox Lewis failed to fill the London Arena on his triumphant return as the only undisputed British world heavyweight champion of the 20th century, a distinction he carries into a new millennium without the faintest scent of a serious challenger. Sampras and Woods, who in the minds of many hard judges have already proved themselves the most dominant champions in the history of their sports, can win only muted respect at Wimbledon and St Andrews.

Meanwhile, we discuss the reasons why these astonishingly able athletes, and wholly admirable young men, have failed to make our blood run beyond acknowledgement of their prowess. We hear about the excitement of a McEnroe, the animal magnetism of a Tyson, and the thrilling confusion brought by a Van de Velde. Perhaps we should look elsewhere to identify theproblem.

Maybe we should look at ourselves.