Time to take triumphs at face value

If insularity and arrogance can be discarded, and dignity and perspective regained, then year promises much
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The Independent Online

After renaissance in Sydney, the Twickenham triumphs and the sweetest of victories at sunlit Lord's and in the dying light of Karachi, the temptation is to apply for just a little more of the same in 2001. But perhaps we shouldn't settle for that. Maybe we should celebrate the best of it and vow to deal with the rest.

After renaissance in Sydney, the Twickenham triumphs and the sweetest of victories at sunlit Lord's and in the dying light of Karachi, the temptation is to apply for just a little more of the same in 2001. But perhaps we shouldn't settle for that. Maybe we should celebrate the best of it and vow to deal with the rest.

We had glory, sure, but God knows we were due some and if there was a message in the success of Sir Stephen Redgrave and a full-sized platoon of heroes and heroines it is surely necessary to take it for what it was and not for what some of the emptier drum-beaters would have us believe.

Sydney demonstrated that with the right support, British talent could still flourish on the world stage. It was a wonderfully refreshing statement - as far it as it went. What it did not begin to do was wipe away the suspicion that we remain far too easily pleased.

We make banquets out of successes which front-rank sporting nations take in their confident stride. We put up with administrative incompetence which would scandalise other nations but here draws not much more than a resigned shrug.

Consider the wretchedness of the Wembley fiasco. Where else would its author, Ken Bates, have been given the leeway to pile one egocentric folly upon another, and be so insulated from official ridicule that he could emerge from a "crisis meeting" to announce that he had received "unanimous support". Now as England, unlike almost any banana republic you can think of, suffers the embarrassment of lacking a national stadium for the foreseeable future, the new potential saviour is an ultimate sports politician, Sir Rodney Walker, whose list of admirers is apparently headed by former sports minister Tony Banks.

Almost everyone has a good word for Sir Rodney, except, presumably, the three chief executives of the Rugby League who have left during his brief tenure as chairman and some members of the Manchester Commonwealth Games organisation, to whom he was sent as a trouble-shooter before being briskly sidelined.

Sir Rodney appointed himself tournament director of the ill-fated World Cup of Rugby League and promptly promised a profit of £10m. It was later reduced to £4m, when the final at Old Trafford, despite heavy papering of tickets through a giveaway promotion with the local evening newspaper, drew a crowd that scarcely filled two thirds of the stadium. The most hopeful projection now is that the tournament will have broken even. It is not the happiest augury.

The course of the Wembley misadventure will be one measurement of the quality of leadership in British sport in 2001; just as the catastrophically wasteful and morally dubious World Cup bid was last year.

Talking of moral dubiety, will anything be more disquieting than the presence of England's rugby captain Martin Johnson on one of the early peaks of 2001 - the February 3 Six Nations collision between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff? With stunning nerve, Johnson appeals against the ban that would not, anyway, have forced him out of one single international game. He explains: "I was very disappointed to receive the suspension and shocked by the severity of it. Other players have received lesser penalties than me and it is for this reason that I am appealing." Not a moment of reflection, you may note, on the plight of his victim, the Saracens scrum-half Duncan McRae, who was kneed in the ribs and stamped upon and who, perhaps not surprisingly, is currently having a little difficulty sleeping, let alone thinking about playing rugby. If Johnson's disgusting behaviour had been an isolated incident, there might be a different perspective. But there isn't. He regularly lapses into guttersnipe violence. However, he is of course captain of England, a marvellous player, and, we are assured, the most amiable of men when he isn't smashing in an opponent's ribs - or cold cocking another scrum-half, the All Black Justin Marshall a few years ago. For that outrage, he received a one-match international ban. It is enough to provoke one fervent hope for the new year: a new breed of rugby administrator who understands the meaning of the word sport.

The wish list is in fact as long as ever. It includes:

* An end to the chauvinism which seems to be guaranteeing the new England football coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, a hostile reception when he starts his attempt to repair the disastrous legacy of a series of native coaches, excluding only Bobby Robson, Terry Venables and Sir Alf Ramsey. This hope, however, does not begin to diminish the desire to see Venables continue to prove at Middlesbrough to even his most one-eyed tormentors that he remains head and shoulders above any other native claimant to Eriksson 's post.

* The sight of Mike Atherton taking it to the Aussies as relentlessly as he did to the West Indians and the Pakistanis, not to mention all those who so prematurely consigned him to oblivion when he finally decided that carrying the burden of the England captaincy had taken away his basic joy in playing cricket. England have been wonderfully buoyed by the chemistry of skipper Nasser Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher, but if England have a ghost of a chance against the world champions Atherton will surely be the cornerstone of the challenge.

* Getting to Cheltenham on a day as crisp as the very best Burgundy and being reminded that saluting a great horse is never a hardship, not even when it is French.

* Watching Tiger Woods perform the impossible, the Grand Slam of golf. If Nicklaus and Hogan couldn't do it, who can? Tiger Woods, that's who.

* Welcoming a proper evaluation of standards in the Premiership, which would involve some separation from the endless hype which presents the merely adequate as great and arguably one of the worst games ever played, Southampton against Spurs last week, as a "high tempo" contest. Sir Alex Ferguson says there are no easy games in the Premiership. He shouldn't believe all he reads and hears.

* Seeing the Ryder Cup restore itself to something that old Sam Ryder had in mind, a celebration of a great game rather than some cheap lusting after victory at any price. You could see the decline over the years. Worst was the redneck partiality of the crowd on Kiawah Island, when Corey Pavin wore a Desert Storm cap and Paul Azinger behaved like a refugee from a Bruce Willis movie. But then the crowds at the Belfry and Valderamma were less than angelic. At the Brookline Country Club in 1999 there was only one redemption : the behaviour of the late Payne Stewart. An eccentric, often showy character, Stewart was in a deeply reflective mood when he lingered at the clubhouse after his angry resistance to the baiting of Colin Montgomerie. "If it comes to this," he said, "well, it just ain't worth it."

* Having Lennox Lewis, an outstanding world heavyweight champion who oddly enough is criticised for the lack of a risk-taking killer instinct even by those who most vigourously ring their hands at the tragic plight of a Paul Ingle, get the chance to finally eject Mike Tyson from a ring he once distinguished in a troubling, stomach-churning way but then came to make nonsense of its best values. Plus, Naseem Hamed finally being required to treat an opponent, and the game in which he has waxed so rich, with some respect when he meets the Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera.

* And of course the big one. The most elusive of them all, that one day we might take every sporting triumph at face value; that a Tour de France or an Olympics doesn't inevitably produce as many questions as answers.

It shouldn't be so much to ask. Not if you say it quickly in your deckchair on some as yet unmapped atoll.

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