James Lawton: At his peak, Hillary gave an answer to this great dummying down of achievement
Saturday 12 January 2008
Like us all, Sir Edmund Hillary had a carbon footprint. But he also had a stride so brave it made him the first conqueror of the world's highest mountain – and the vision and conscience to spend much of the rest of his life fighting to preserve both its purity and the Sherpas who lived so vulnerably in its great shadow.
However, such tributes probably belong elsewhere. This, after all, is a sports column, which in some ways is bordered by the parameters of a field or boxing ring. But then, perhaps, in some other ways not.
If the life of the fabled hero which ended this week resonates with particular force in this area, it is because maybe, just maybe, at its supreme moment there came not a scintilla of the self-congratulation, the bombast, the elevation of the individual above the team, which is now so commonplace it scarcely merits comment.
It is something you live with to the point where only something as monumental as the achievement of Hillary 55 years ago – and, by today's standards, the astonishing modesty of his reaction to it – can remind you of how different it used to be.
The point of comparison which seems most glaring is absurdly symbolic. When Hillary made it finally to Everest's peak, with his partner and climbing soulmate Tenzing Norgay a little way behind, his sole act of celebration was to take a photograph of the other man. That was his embrace of history; there was no recorded flag-planting hubris from the Kiwi, a Second World War navigator with bomber command who, when the fighting was done, took up the family business of bee-keeping.
The mountaineer and actor Brian Blessed, who climbed with Hillary in much later years, explained yesterday that not among Tenzing's many instinctive skills was the art of pressing a button and ordering someone to say cheese. However, if there had been a particular will, the men who had negotiated those last 1,000 treacherous feet, would probably have pulled off this relatively simple challenge. Instead, we have just one unforgettable photographic image – Tenzing at the summit, his climbing boots wide apart for a more secure stance.
Of course, you know where we are going. It is to the desk of the picture editor of every newspaper in the world, when besieged by a blizzard of photographs depicting a goal scored at any level of professional football. There are certain common factors. The goalscorer, however humdrum the strike, or whatever part of his body the ball struck before entering the net, or how many deflections were involved, will have attempted to isolate himself, perhaps by running to the corner flag to shake off all those who want to share in the glory – and perhaps even the man who made the pass or the cross which made the goal possible. For photographic purposes, "assists" hardly exist. There are other devices, we know well enough. One trick, if you haven't managed to score yourself, is to attach yourself to the hero of the moment, perhaps by jumping on his back.
The ultimate gut-wrencher came the other day when Carlos Tevez, an otherwise splendidly committed striker on behalf of Manchester United, scored a winning goal. He produced a baby's dummy, thus providing a picture which was supposed to represent his undying love for his young family back in Argentina but, as it turned out, served only to make him the poster boy for football as something that should never be allowed out of the playpen. Thankfully, we do not have to go all the way back to the Himalayas in 1953 for examples of heroic understatement. Some of us are still moved by the memory of the late Bobby Moore stopping briefly to wipe the sweat from his hands as he walked to receive the World Cup from the Queen in 1966, on a day when the nation was made to feel as happy about itself as at any time since 13 years earlier, when the expedition of Sir John Hunt reported that Hillary, a loyal member of the old empire, had delivered a perfect gift on the eve of the coronation. That was an uplifting start to the second Elizabethan age, one that gathered force on the cricket field when the Ashes were retrieved and, three years later, Jim Laker, a taciturn Yorkshireman who smoked a pipe and wore a mac, took 19 Aussie wickets in one Test match. Laker produced little more than a small grunt of satisfaction.
Grace in triumph has not quite died. But mostly it lives in an oxygen tent. Certainly, those of us who complain about Freddie Flintoff's professional lapses can never forget his deportment when he experienced his own Himalayan moment. It was in the second Test of the Ashes of 2005, when he was moving to the peak of his powers as an authentic successor to Sir Ian Botham. The Australians had just failed in what would have been one of the most extraordinary victories in the history of the game, and the paceman Brett Lee, who had batted with astonishing nerve, dropped to his knees in defeat. As England's players ran and leapt in their joy, Flintoff stopped to commiserate with his fallen rival.
You may say that was a faint reproduction of the Hillary style in a moment of truly epic performance, but for a little while Flintoff was in the same country, as Nick Faldo was when he won his third Masters Green Jacket after wearing down the brilliant but tragically flawed Greg Norman, and then embraced him with a tenderness he had never before displayed so publicly.
What Moore and Laker, Flintoff and Faldo were doing, maybe, was reflecting on something that Sir Edmund Hillary plainly knew well enough long before he looked down on the rest from the highest point in the world. It was that the greatest of achievement will always speak most eloquently for itself.
It certainly doesn't need a dummy jammed in its mouth.
Newcastle farce demonstrates need to slam shut window of opportunity for mid-season managerial mischief
The transfer window is widely seen as a failed experiment, an encouragement to the wiles of agents and the whims of stars with restive feet and hungry wallets. But then if there is a pressing case to abandon it – and permit player movement only in the close season except in the most exceptional situations – is there not an even stronger argument to say that the traffic of managers should also be restricted to the summer?
Harry Redknapp's prospective move to Newcastle makes eminent sense if you happen to follow that club. Though his reputation was considered to be too compromised to make him a realistic runner for the England job, there is no question that "Arry Boy" is one of those increasingly rare football men who understands how to make both agreeable and winning football.
In many ways, except accent and antecedents, Redknapp (right) is a perfect fit for the comatose giants of the North-east. He is bright, philosophical and knows the value of surrounding himself with football men of deep experience and winning instincts. But why should Newcastle be able to trade on these facts in the middle of Portsmouth's season?
Because the Newcastle owner, Mike Ashley, wasn't party to the lame-brained idea of bringing in Big Sam and his long ball and his idea that he could smooth out some of the problematic aspects of Joey Barton, shouldn't mean he has carte blanche to take over the investments of other, rather smarter clubs in the middle of the action.
Ashley, after all, hasn't done what all clubs should be obliged to do when they approach the most important signing they can ever make. He hasn't made a study, with the best professional help, of which football man might be most suitable to his club's needs. No, he's just gone along to St James' Park, dressed in his souvenir shirt, and watched Harry Redknapp's team play the socks off Big Sam's.
No prizes for intuition here, just more evidence that in football you don't always have to be right first time if you have loadsamoney.
If clubs knew they had to stick with a manager for one whole season, or replace him from their own staff, they might think twice about the kind of lunging and threshing which this season has already seen eight football men of considerable, if in some cases inflated, reputation go down.
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