Humour the biggest victim of money-driven age

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Sport's apparent prejudice against a hearty laugh weighs heavily on those of us who can remember a time when the urgent business of winning and losing was lightened by an intrinsic comic quality.

Sport's apparent prejudice against a hearty laugh weighs heavily on those of us who can remember a time when the urgent business of winning and losing was lightened by an intrinsic comic quality.

It comes as a surprise today when anyone in sport passes a remark that is delightful in its originality and guaranteed to get a cackling response when repeated in bars or by speakers on the after-dinner circuit.

At sporting functions I have recently attended the best, the funniest, anecdotes were unquestionably about people who could not be placed in achievement and time by many in the audience.

Because it seems from here that no aspect of sport has suffered so sorry a decline as humour, I remarked to one of the speakers that it must be increasingly difficult to freshen up his act. "Gets harder by the week," he said.

Sport is taken so seriously today that levity in games players is universally frowned on, prompting the notion that they are guilty as charged of irresponsible behaviour and not properly grateful for the good things that have happened to them.

Take recent and upcoming events. Last weekend's matches in the Six Nations' rugby championship, especially the match between Scotland and England at Murrayfield, might have been affairs of the heart but by all accounts nobody advanced the cause of whimsical reflection.

The match between Ireland and Wales in Dublin reminded me of a tale concerning Dick Spring, whose one international appearance was unfortunately marked by a late error of judgment that gave Wales victory. Many years later one of the Welsh players asked Spring what he was presently up to. "I'm in the Irish government," Spring said. "Well, I hope you aren't minister for defence," came the reply.

All this is to do with the checks and balances that once helped to make sport so enjoyable. For example, Greg Norman spoke on Tuesday of how he shaped up to life after squandering a big lead in the 1996 Masters and giving up the title to Nick Faldo. "I've grown stronger where I hurt so much after that," he said. He could have recalled - doubtless to the delight of his interrogators - the brief conversation he had with a British golf writing friend on the eve of the final round. "Not even you can f*** this up," Norman was told.

For one reason or another, Lee Trevino in his prime held a deep antipathy towards Augusta National but this week's Masters could do with a touch of his famously irreverent humour to keep matters in perspective. Instead, we have an overkill of romance conforming to pretentious tradition.

By now we are almost inured to presumptions of a society operating on the basis that anyone who wants amusement as well as success from sport should seek alternative diversions. Looking back, most people of an older generation would, I think, agree that the decline of humour in games coincided with the advent of a money-driven age that has no time for frivolity in sport.

What would be made now of a quip attributed to Stan Bowles when running out to represent England against Poland on a cold and rainy night? Seeing a stretcher alongside the pitch, Bowles said: "Twenty minutes and that'll do me." Or the England substitute who came on in the 1970 World Cup finals celebrating the fee he was thus guaranteed from a boot deal.

Arsenal strode out alongside Liverpool for the 1950 FA Cup final without their Scottish inside-forward Jimmy Logie, who had sneaked out of the dressing room to telephone for the result of a dog race. Arriving in time for the presentation, Logie, who would have a terrific match, called out to Alex Forbes. "It got beat, Alex," he said.

There are no stories like that now. Nobody with Bill Shankly's talent for amusing imagery. After signing the giant centre-half Ron Yeats - "With him in the team I could afford to play Arthur Askey in goal." In retirement - "A long time since I've been in London. I'm going to wait until it's completed."

Those were the days, I am saying, that will not - dare not - come again.