Britain is becalmed in zone of mediocrity

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.

Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
News
UK Border Control
i100
Arts and Entertainment
TV
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: Receptionist / Office Administrator - Full or Part Time

£14600 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Established in 2003 the company...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Content Marketing Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing, Google certi...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 business...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn