James Lawton: Hoy's humility as victor brings out best in personality of British sport
This was a roll-call of superb achievement and a winner who made nonsense of the traditional block vote controversy
Tuesday 16 December 2008
There have been times, we can now more cheerfully acknowledge, when even a labour battalion of the old Red Army might have struggled to dig through the schmaltz piled up by a single showing of the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show. When you considered the peaks achieved in other corners of the sports universe it was too often embarrassingly clear that it was much too much ado about next to nothing.
Not this time, however. What we had was a roll-call of superb achievement and a winner who made nonsense of the traditional block vote controversy. If Chris Hoy won by block vote, well, democracy, however it is organised, still has a chance.
If it was concerted, it was still acclamation for historic achievement. And if this bothers too much a few malcontents worried about the accents and the priorities of Hoy's supporters, they would be better considering one of the oldest truths in sport. This is, as a workable general rule, that the highest performance tends to be accompanied not only by relentless ambition but also the deepest humility.
Hoy, the triple gold medallist of Beijing, a man who in his dedication and his style might be described as a slightly more relaxed version of Sir Steven Redgrave on wheels, reminded of this when he accepted his prize with the most graceful tribute to the quality of the field and, in effect, accepted the prize on behalf of all who brought glory to their nation in China.
Personal instinct here made me, by a whisker over Hoy and Lewis Hamilton, a Becky Adlington man, but that was almost certainly because of the freshness and innocence she brought to her dramatic and charming collision with British sports history. Hamilton would have won it without getting out of first gear in so many years of the award. There were, astonishingly, other contenders not so far away from that status who didn't even make the top 10. Yet when the result came in, and Becky, the young and so frequently laughing lady in red, battled so gamely to mask her disappointment, as Hamilton had been required to do last year, no one could begin to question the merit of Hoy's triumph.
Plainly, he operates on the basic principle of Sir Bobby Charlton, the man who a little earlier in the evening had brought the same modesty to his acceptance of a lifetime award as he did in Moscow in the spring when he briskly pocketed the Champions League winner's medal he insisted he hadn't earned in the only place that mattered, out on the field.
It was especially moving to see his brother, Jack, with whom he has been known to have an occasional public disagreement, present both the trophy and the warmest embrace. Bobby Charlton reasserted his lifelong conviction that to be born with his natural ability to participate in sport at the highest level was the most astonishing good fortune.
Hoy's supreme gift, apart from a constitution apparently composed largely of tungsten, was the character which has enabled him to submit to the extraordinary discipline required to win a total of five Olympic golds. It was perfectly appropriate that Redgrave should share the stage of Hoy's glory. Here were near perfect parallels because if the Scotsman cannot expect to share the Olympic longevity of Redgrave and his stunning journey from Los Angeles in 1984 to Sydney 16 years years later, there is no question that he has applied similar levels of effort and self-denial in winning the same number of gold medals.
Hoy accepted his award not only on behalf of a ferociously committed British team in Beijing but also the "outsiders", the flying Hamilton and the unscathed Joe Calzaghe. He was applying his imprimatur, with a total lack of self-importance, to a year of performance by British sportsmen and women which surely set a new benchmark for both ambition and self-belief.
As he did that, he also displayed a quality that some of us began to fear had disappeared from the games we play around about the time the Charlton boys fell into each other's arms on the field of old Wembley in 1966 and speculated whether two brothers had ever known such good luck in the same place at the same time.
What was that quality, precisely? It was the inherent humility that made, for example, a Pele, who despite his extraordinary, even surreal gifts, never did anything on a football field that wasn't primarily aimed at benefiting his team.
Such attitudes seemed to be imperilled relentlessly in the decades that followed, years bloated by undreamt wealth and fawning celebrity worship, but on Sunday night they surfaced so strongly they surely could have cleared away a mountain of exaggerated praise.
Unquestionably, it was a time to salute beautifully delivered achievement – and tell Boris and Igor that on this occasion they could put down their shovels.
Messi's resilience throws down the gauntlet to Ronaldo
In England we are beset by misfiring superteams and irascible superstars. Oh, indeed, to be in Spain in the season of Barça and Lionel Messi, their currently sure-fire candidate for the next round of the awards now being monopolised by Cristiano Ronaldo.
At Messi's current rate of knots, Cristiano and his most fervent supporters – and heaven knows they do get upset with anyone who has the temerity to say that he isn't quite a combination of the moon and stars, and not yet even vaguely in the class of the late George Best – will have to review his publicly stated belief that his undisputed supremacy will stretch out seamlessly down the years.
The fact is Messi is disputing this assumption not only with brilliant skill but the most impressive competitive character.
While Ronaldo was displaying another classic piece of petulance at White Hart Lane, Messi, after making a dazzling start in the Nou Camp, was having lumps kicked out of him by Real Madrid.
His reaction, though, was mostly blessedly free of serial gesticulation and fears of impending martyrdom. Like his compatriot Diego Maradona, who was required to spend most of his career on painkillers, Messi some time ago grasped that making monkeys of his opponents came at the inevitable cost of unbroken and often brutal attention.
There are two ways of dealing with this, of course. You can slide into a diving, pouting parody of the great player you were born to be. Or you can do what Messi did against Real. You can take the blows and repay them with interest.
This Messi did with the second of the two goals that brought Barça victory and confirmed their currently luminous status as the runaway leaders of La Liga.
Ronaldo may have the perfect opportunity to dispute this view of events in this year's Champions League action. Of course, it would be foolish to dispute his potential to make a superior splash if Manchester United and Barça are drawn together at some stage in the competition.
However, it should be said that in terms of mano-a-mano combat the little Argentine already is leading on points. He delivered a masterclass at Old Trafford last season.
When the great matadors Luis Dominguin and Antonio Ordonez competed across Spain half a century ago, the aficionados spoke of the "Dangerous Summer". Now European football must hope to savour the possibility of the winter of Ronaldo and Messi.
England can face second Test with self-respect
Playing against someone like the little prince Sachin Tendulkar will always mitigate the dishonour of defeat and this surely was never more so than in the case of England in Chennai yesterday.
England's achievement under the shadow of terrorism was two-fold. First they disarmed those of us who believed that any refusal to return to embattled India would have represented a failure of both nerve and their responsibility to live in the real world and not some self-created cocoon. Then they stretched the world's best team to the best part of five days, an accomplishment that seemed quite beyond them after the thrashings of the one-day series and the scurry of commuting between home and the subcontinent.
Hopefully, England will be able to build on the self-respect gleaned over the last few days and produce another show of spirit in the second Test. That, practically speaking, is probably as much as can be asked for in the face of the sublime Sachin and the emergence of another Indian star at Test level, Yuvraj Singh. No doubt, though, England supporters will agree that in all the circumstances, that would do very nicely, thank you.
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