True sportsmanship a commodity worth celebrating

Sporting crowds hate certain things with disproportionate intensity. Take false starts. Nothing is more guaranteed to wind up a gathering of athletics followers. The first one elicits a ripple of dismay. A second registers a groan of disappointment. Any subsequent recalls begin to take the prevailing atmosphere into the realms of increasingly strident anger. By the time the field finally gets underway, at the fourth or fifth attempt - for some reason, an occurrence which is becoming regular at the annual British trials - there is such a sense of relief it is as if any result will be acceptable, so long as there actually is one.

Sporting crowds hate certain things with disproportionate intensity. Take false starts. Nothing is more guaranteed to wind up a gathering of athletics followers. The first one elicits a ripple of dismay. A second registers a groan of disappointment. Any subsequent recalls begin to take the prevailing atmosphere into the realms of increasingly strident anger. By the time the field finally gets underway, at the fourth or fifth attempt - for some reason, an occurrence which is becoming regular at the annual British trials - there is such a sense of relief it is as if any result will be acceptable, so long as there actually is one.

The reaction of tennis spectators to double faults is of a similar nature. Unless we are in one of the more partisan arenas, where double faults by foreign opponents are greeted as if they were home aces, the failure to get things started properly causes rapidly escalating frustration. But people are odd. Woven into the intemperance and intolerance of so many sporting occasions is a continuing reverence for the truly sporting gesture. Even in this increasingly commercial, television-centric realm, we cherish genuine selflessness.

Our local paper featured some long-forgotten photographs of a sporting hero this week. They were pictures of Sydney Wooderson, the former world mile record holder, addressing a group of Scouts during an activity weekend held more than 50 years ago. "It was interesting for us to see him, because although we all knew who he was, most of us didn't actually know what he looked like," recalled the owner of the photos. "It was very different in that respect from the way it is today."

Wooderson never looked much like a celebrity even at the peak of his powers. The accompanying picture of the athlete hoisted shoulder-high after that world record- breaking run in 1937 shows a wiry, bespectacled man who looks faintly bemused by all the fuss.

Not many people will recall the time Wooderson set on that occasion, but the memory of his demeanour, on and off the track, has endured, and it received belated recognition this year when he was awarded the MBE at the age of 86.

It is strange the things that stick in the collective memory. Some people will remember Emil Zatopek, who died earlier this year, as the man who grimaced his way to Olympic titles. Many others will recall him as the man who gave one of those gold medals away to a man who followed in his metaphorical footsteps, without ever managing to win the titles his enormous talent merited - Ron Clarke.

Predicting how people will recall Paolo Di Canio in future years is a little trickier. History certainly does not record Wooderson pushing any officials to the ground; nor are there reports of Zatopek ever calling any fellow runner a cretin. But this most volatile of performers may have done more for his cause than he realised in halting play the other week as he was well placed to score, because he had seen the opposing goalkeeper stranded and clearly injured outside his penalty area. Was it a moment of divine intervention, or apostasy? The West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, publicly endorsed his player's moment of supreme selflessness, even if the little suggestion of a smile at the corner of his mouth hinted at the different interpretation he may have offered in the immediate post-match discussions. But such a moment, such a split-second judgement, can alter the mood of a very large gathering of people. Thirty-odd thousand murmur in appreciation or applaud what is, essentially, the ideal of fair play.

A few weeks ago, at The Dell, Di Canio spent much of his Saturday afternoon driving Southampton's defence to distraction by purely legitimate means. His efforts on that occasion, however, were as nothing compared to those of his forward partner Frédéric Kanouté, who produced a truly awe-inspiring performance incorporating irrepressible power with intricate ball control. A couple of places along from me, two gentlemen in the directors' seats enthused over the Frenchman's performance. "Here he goes," said one excitedly, as Kanouté picked up the ball and turned once again to the ragged red and white opposition in front of him. "Look at that," the other exclaimed as another attempted tackle came to grief. "Unbelievable."

It went on like this for most of the first half. During the break, the man in charge of the Southampton press box passed the pair of enthusiasts, and they greeted him on first-name terms. They were directors of the home team, swept away with admiration of sporting excellence. God knows how this pair might have reacted had James Beattie had a similarly majestic afternoon. But as things stood, it was a pretty impressive example of impartiality.

Witnessing true sportsmanship is like feeling a shiver run down your spine. As a new year approaches, we would do well to celebrate it where we find it.

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