The Peter Corrigan Column: Golden days for deluded and downtrodden
Sunday 03 July 2005
What if Tim Henman, who featured large as a loser in the programme, had reached Wimbledon's last four, as he has done on four previous occasions?
On recent form, this was unlikely, but had he done so would they have still shown it on the eve of the semi-finals? And what if the Lions had beaten the All Blacks in Christchurch a week ago yesterday? I imagine that would have also called for a rapid rescheduling.
If they had put it forward a week, however, it would have been shown the day after the announcement of the 2012 Olympic venue, and what if that goes London's way? It would have been hardly the time to scoff at our losing habits.
No, Channel 4 were fortunate enough to get away with it, even though this amusing amalgam of our cheerful occupation of Loserland was aired in the midst of the 200th anniversary celebrations of Admiral Horatio Nelson's defeat of the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar. Nelson a loser? How dare they class one of the world's most renowned winners as such. But, on closer inspection, the documentary acknowledged our glorious past before questioning how a nation responsible for so many heroic figures and for creating one of the great empires could have recorded so pitifully few recent accomplishments.
What's worse, they maintain, we don't seem bothered about it. Where we once adored our heroes we now venerate our zeroes. We appear fixated by failure. We've grown to love losers.
The quick response is that if we didn't love losers, who else would we love? But they might well have a point, because on that very day I watched the women's semi-finals, and although I admired the way Venus Williams smashed her way to victory at Wimbledon, I was very impressed with the dignified manner in which the young defending champion, Maria Sharapova, took her surprise defeat.
Perhaps they were right in claiming that we can't resist heroic failure. Maybe we've had our noses rubbed in it so often that we have learned to appreciate that there are other facets of conflict to be admired besides winning.
Other countries, the United States and Australia in particular, find this a peculiar attitude. They take as much pride in being bad losers as we take in being good losers. It's all part of the national character, I suppose.
The documentary was presented by Michael Portillo, who offered as his credentials the fact that his defeat in the 1997 general election had made him a well-known loser; so much so that the announcement of his loss has been voted the third most popular TV moment ever.
In tracing our descent into happy-loser mode, the programme tended to implicate the Royal family and the upper class for the stiff-upper-lip accent on fair play and taking-defeat-on-the-chin approach that has eroded our desire to win at all costs. Even our favourite comedy sitcoms are based on our delight in watching losers like Basil Fawlty, Steptoe, Captain Mainwaring and David Brent in action. We do the deluded and the downtrodden better than anyone.
None of this strikes me as being deserving of contempt, but they did find it odd that we gave so many sports and games to the world and for decades rival nations have been beating us at all of them. I would prefer to take pride in belonging to the mother country of so much of modern sport. If you care to study the origins of our major games like football, both codes of rugby and cricket, you will find that they were created in public houses.
The fact that the sporting world is still playing to rules devised well over a century ago by Britons who were probably half-pissed at the time is something of which to be genuinely proud.
One of the reasons certain other countries surpassed us in developing their abilities at these sports is that our inheritance of the Corinthian spirit blessed us with the sportsmanship that is now perceived as a weakness.
There is no doubt we stuck more rigidly to the amateur ethos than any other country in the world, which would have also slowed our progress. Our sports have been badly administrated in this respect. And few other governments have done less to provide encouragement and the infrastructure to enable us to compete on level terms, which brings us to the Olympic Games and the threat of becoming major losers in Singapore on Wednesday.
From the outset I have not been in favour of the London bid. I think the French deserve it more, because in terms of facilities and sporting investment they have outshone us for years and by a considerable margin, as have most other countries in Europe.
But I am impressed by the effort we have made, even though I deplore the demeaning process that the candidates have to go through. Apart from the cost, which is over £30m that could be better spent in sport, we seem to have been kow-towing to the International Olympic Committee for what seems an age.
Now, scores of representatives of five of the world's greatest cities have converged in a final and tasteless jamboree of lobbying. The 100 or so delegates who will be voting are treated like gods. Why? They surely have seen and heard enough to have made up their minds months ago.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his wife, are among those canvassing for votes out there. So is the French president, Jacques Chirac. Haven't they got more urgent things to do than suck up to this lot?
The numbers and variety of those in on the act are ludicrous. Sven Goran Eriksson and David Beckham are among those whose presence defies belief. Last week, Eriksson declined to watch Brazil play Argentina in the final of the Confederations Cup in Germany in favour of a stint on the sun-soaked decks of a holiday yacht, inspecting Nancy's corns. What the hell is he doing in Singapore? We don't even support Olympic football. Our four home associations have refused to amalgamate their forces to enter a Great Britain team on the spurious excuse that Fifa might force us to do that in all competitions.
But even Fifa realise that Olympic rules do not allow us to enter as individual countries. So generations of UK and Northern Ireland young men have been denied the opportunity of appearing at the Olympics because of the cowardly, self-serving priorities of our football associations. Ironically, Beckham is one who might have been an Olympian but for our administrative intransigence.
Even if we lose, I trust some positive benefit will arise and that before the Government slide back into their shells they will realise the importance of appointing Lord Coe as a sports supremo charged with revitalising our sporting profile.
It would be a far-from-cushy number, but someone has to build a sporting future in which the First World War slur of "lions led by donkeys" will no longer be apt.
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