James Lawton: Uplifting Cavendish cheers the soul as troubled year ends on its highest note


Thank God for the passion and the achievement of Mark Cavendish and the uplifting evidence that enough people in this country still value such extraordinary effort they voted him BBC's Sports Personality of the Year in a landslide.

Thank God, also, for the stride of Frankel, the equine god, and the resilience of his great trainer Henry Cecil in the face of cancer, and the gallantry with which Seve Ballesteros, who gave us so many of the days of our lives, left us as he arrived, an inspiring counterpoint to the despair which touches so many in these discouraging days and that, so shockingly, ended the life of Gary Speed which had seemed so secure, so accomplished in its modestly pitched way.

The gratitude is felt strongly here at least, because it means that when we look back on the sports year of 2011 we are not necessarily drawn to the most appalling motif – the head-cam devices employed as a deterrent by White Hart Lane stewards against the scourge of abuse ranging from growlings of homophobia to racism and all of it part of rising levels of tribal hatred.

Nor do we have to dwell on the Luis Suarez T-shirts worn by Liverpool players and expressly approved of by Kenny Dalglish, one of the greatest football men bred in these islands but someone who these last few days has reduced the issue of racism to another piece of rabble-rousing sectional interest.

You guarantee only another tide of abuse when you make this point, in a pub, on the air or in a newspaper and, most recklessly, no doubt, in a football ground but what is the alternative? Some feeble or mute acceptance that some areas of our sport, our grand diversion, have been hijacked by the kind of mob you would despise if it assembled in the cause of fascism or some other incipient tyranny?

Maybe not; perhaps it is too great an invasion of something which has been regarded as precious for so long, to permit something that might be described as moral or emotional inertia. Certainly, though, it is a relief, even a salvation to be able to turn to the meaning of a Cavendish or a Cecil, a Mo Farah or the English cricket team and be reminded that sport has not altogether become a wasteland of broken values.

Such a bleak conclusion has been too hard to resist this last year. The affair of Carlos Tevez and his rebellion during Manchester City's hugely important Champions League tie in Munich was in some ways pretty much the nadir, at least if we put on one side the dereliction of England's rugby team.

Tevez reminded you of one of Bill Shankly's more ferocious reactions to signs of disinterest in players who, rather than being paid the best part of £200,000 a week, were just about able to invest in a modest family saloon and a semi-detached. "Players who are well paid have a duty to perform for the people who pay their wages," he declared. "I tell them that it is an honour. To tell you truth, if I had my way I would send those who don't try hard enough to jail. I'd get them out of the way. They're a menace."

An argument not easy to resurrect today, of course, but certainly it is a point of reference, a small measure of how far the footballer has come and how some of them are so utterly dismissive of their good fortune and the kind of responsibility the great Shankly may sometimes have perhaps over-stated. No one, though, ever had to remind Mark Cavendish of his priorities and that was his greatest glory this week.

For some time now he had been riding his way into the affection and respect of the sporting nation. Now, he has reached a pinnacle of recognition, an achievement created not only by remorseless application in one of sport's toughest disciplines but, most remarkable of all in the context of Cavendish's triumph, one that has created unique suspicion of many who have achieved success in cycling.

This is the dark corner of sport in which Cavendish, no more than Usain Bolt in athletics, lacks any special power to illuminate. However, the Manxman, like the Jamaican, carries with him an extraordinary force of goodwill, even a yearning that he will get to the end of a course that in many ways is the most demanding in sport with his reputation as unsullied as it is today. Respect for Cavendish can only increase with any close-up exposure to the demands of the Tour de France, in which this year he won five stages and the green jersey along with the World Road title, which was last won for Britain by the tragic Tommy Simpson some 46 years ago.

In the Tour de France they do not require you to step into the boxing ring and have someone fire punches at your head and other vulnerable parts of your body, and it is only this that prevents you saying it is indeed the toughest branch of professional sport.

When Cavendish speaks of the brotherhood of riders, when he recalls the agonies of the Cols and the pain of returning to the road in the Pyrenees or the Central Massif, you are reminded of those days when you saw riders getting near ruined bodies massaged up in their rooms, and some confessed they didn't have a part that didn't hurt.

For some of us, too, it is impossible to forget the agony and the shame of a Belgian rider, Michel Pollentier, back at the peak of Alpe d'Huez in 1978 – a year after he had won the prestigious Giro d'Italia.

All the way up the Road of the Cross, Pollentier had the cheers at his back, driving him higher and stronger, and when he finished the stage he had the yellow jersey. Then he was caught with a condom of clean urine secreted in his armpit, which he was attempting to pass as his own. You would never see a more abrupt breaking of one heroic spell – or never understand more sharply, more poignantly, the dividing line between great honour and deep shame.

Cavendish speaks passionately of the rehabilitation of his sport and there is a little wonder in his voice when he reflects on the significance of his popular triumph in the BBC poll in a non-Olympic year. He stresses the depth and the width of the drug-testing protocols to which he has so willingly submitted and tells us that whenever he sees someone on a bike, dressed for the sport or simply going to work or school, he has a lifting of his spirit.

It is an emotion on which he can certainly claim proprietary rights and when he takes it up from time to time, as he did this week in the presence of another notable representative of classic sports values, Sir Bobby Charlton, there was another reminder of what the great, embattled Tour de France has always represented to many people even in the worst of days.

This was once expressed by a man of obvious wealth in a cafe by the roadside of Nantes. He had tears in his eyes as the riders swept by, explaining that as a boy in a mountain town he had always treasured those days when he got a glimpse of the most fabled hero, the man in the yellow jersey. He said: "These are old tears because they come from the emotion I felt all those years ago in the crowd in the old town square. It is quite unchanged. I still marvel, am still moved, by the courage of the riders. Yes, there are problems but I still believe that if there is enough spirit they will be overcome."

He was saying, perhaps, that some men will always be better than others and that they have the supreme power to make the world, for a little while at least, stand still.

It is to such company that Mark Cavendish has elected himself. The other good news is that he has been recognised so resoundingly.