Short answers prove the death of conversation

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The Independent Online

As far as I know, the term comes from the card game Newmarket, where a sequence of play halts because the next required lay is stuck in a dummy hand – which makes the last card played a 'stopper'.

Whatever the case, in the course of spending 20 years asking questions of sporting men, women and in extreme cases children, or hearing others ask, I have found myself remembering this phrase on numerous occasions.

Only a couple of weeks ago, at an athletics meeting in Glasgow, I was privileged, along with a crowd of around 5,000 spectators, to hear a prime example of the 'stopper' genre. Standing at trackside on behalf of the meeting promoters, Jon Ridgeon, Britain's former Olympic hurdler, was interviewing the man who had just won the 400 metres hurdles event for the United States, Angelo Taylor.

During his own career, Ridgeon's enormous gifts were denied full expression because of a sequence of injuries which would have persuaded most athletes to end their careers. Now he stood alongside a man whose performance at the Sydney Games of 2000 had earned the ultimate prize in athletics, a prize for which the Briton had sweated blood and tears in a decade of vain pursuit.

"So, Angelo," said Ridgeon with a welcoming grin. "What's it like being introduced as Olympic champion?" "It's OK," said Angelo.

Where do you go from there? There's nowhere, really, is there? Last month's European Cup competition in Bremen saw a similar conversational stall. Another 400m hurdler, Natasha Danvers, had entered the home straight in a position which promised Britain a healthy number of points, only to find herself sprawling on the track after going through, rather than over, the penultimate hurdle. Asked to comment upon the incident, Danvers reflected for a moment before announcing: "That wasn't part of the plan." As a remark, it was the jack of clubs with no queen of hearts or diamonds in sight.

Sometimes, the stopper effect can occur because, rather than there being nothing which can be said to something, there is simply too much to be said, and one doesn't know where to start.

Earlier this year, on the eve of Crystal Palace's Worthington Cup tie against Liverpool, I spoke to their Latvian goalkeeper Alex Kolinko. The conversation was diminished by the fact that his English was limited and I had temporarily forgotten every Latvian word I ever knew.

"So Alex," I began, reasonably enough. "Do you like England?" "Yes, yes. I like very much," he replied. "What do you like?" There was a long pause here, before he announced, in the manner of Archimedes at bath-time: "Life!" Where to start? I didn't know. But I knew where to finish.

The combined trials and AAA Championships in Birmingham this weekend have provided similarly emphatic punctuation marks over the years. A cherished moment for those members of the press who were present five years ago occurred after a pulverising 400m in which Roger Black set a British record of 44.37sec, ahead of the man who had denied him a third European title in 1994, Du'Aine Ladejo.

Sitting alongside Black, Ladejo opined that by the end of the season he would be the one to hold the British record. There was a brief and ill-tempered exchange, before Black suddenly challenged Ladejo to put his money where his mouth was. "All right," Ladejo responded. "How much?" "A thousand pounds," said Black. "Done." At which point, all further conversation became pointless. Black and Ladejo had nothing more to say to each other. And rows of reporters in front of them simply wanted to get straight on to their respective offices to tell them that there was an unexpectedly good story on its way.

That occasion, at least, left the great British press with something to write. Sadly, the conversational stopper which remains most vividly in my mind ensured the reverse.

I was working for a Sunday paper at the time, covering the 1990 European Championships in Split. Unbeknown to me, Linford Christie had been angered by an article that had appeared in one of the daily papers accusing him of being, or implying – I never did get to read it – that he was arrogant.

With no midweek deadline to work for, I decided to help the chaps out a bit after Christie had successfully reached the final, and discovered him holding court to about 15 members of the foreign press.

When he saw a member of the offending British press arrive at the edge of this gathering, he halted abruptly and approached the intruder. "Get lost!" he said. "Why?" I replied. "Get. Lost!" he said, his face less than a foot from mine. I can take a hint.

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