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Sport on TV: Twenty years ago our sporting stars started to fall from grace


The public gatherings in the United States to watch the soccer team play their World Cup knockout match against Belgium on Tuesday were like nothing seen in the country for 20 years – not the 1994 World Cup which they hosted, but the verdict in the O J Simpson murder trial.

Some 150 million people watched that moment worldwide, we were informed on O J Simpson: Caught on Camera (More4, Wednesday), and everyone in the States held a stake in the outcome because the former American football legend was a household name. Unlike the Belgians. Hey guys, where is Bell Jam anyway? In Europe? Where’s that then?

It would be a bit like David Beckham being put on trial for murdering Posh Spice, though one suspects the boot would be on the other foot in that instance. But the big difference was that “The Juice” was black and the polarity of opinion between Afro-Americans and whites was astonishing, like the fiercest sporting rivalry but a whole lot darker, as befitted the nature of a double murder trial.

As the black community celebrated his acquittal, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants recoiled in disbelief and protested just as loudly. The trial by then had long turned from courtroom drama to televised farce with the Los Angeles Police Department witness Mark Fuhrman being discredited and disgraced as a racist.

The unhappy parallels with the Oscar Pistorius trial ongoing in South Africa are plain to see. In a country deeply divided along racial lines, the background to the murder trial is the white man’s fear of crime and feelings of literal insecurity as well as the figurative kind.

The victim, again, is a gorgeous blonde model. And the defendant, a role model who transcends his ethnicity, is portrayed as a man who could not control his feelings of rage. The differences, of course, are that Pistorius definitely killed his girlfriend, and almost everyone thinks he did it.

Looking back at the incredible circus that surrounded the O J trial, it is extraordinary how the story unfolded with the slowest car chase in history being played out live on television. In typically understated fashion we hear an anchorman describe the scene as a “modern tragedy and drama of Shakespearean proportions” – but for once the hyperbole was almost acceptable: even the business of O J trying on the glove that was too small for him was curiously like a touch of the Bard, a MacBeth dagger.

“This is insane, I’ve never seen anything like it,” said a reporter in a helicopter as  O J turned carefully into his own driveway, followed by an absurd convoy of cop cars. “That’s the dog! Has he got a dog, Jimmy?” Are we all going barking mad?

There was some great footage in the programme, including the prosecutor Marcia Clark confronting a cameraman outside her home on the day of the verdict that cannot possibly be repeated on a Sunday morning.

O J let the side down by being banged up for 33 years for robbery, kidnapping, coercion and conspiracy in 2008. After the programme, Channel 4 were trailing their next searing exposé, tomorrow’s tale of the downfall of another US sporting icon in Lance Armstrong, The Armstrong Lie.

At least the Yanks have probably heard of the Tour de France. Just don’t tell them it starts in Yorkshire this year, that would really confuse them.