Why we are losing the battle in search of the truth

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The Independent Online

I have come to realise over the last few years of covering the self-possessed souls who operate at sport's élite levels that it is possible to find a form of words to circumvent every suggestion of failure.

I have come to realise over the last few years of covering the self-possessed souls who operate at sport's élite levels that it is possible to find a form of words to circumvent every suggestion of failure.

Failure does not exist in the positive-thinking lexicon. Just as the Big Brother contestants balked at saying they couldn't stand each other, preferring to talk about "not connecting", so there is an accepted language within sporting circles which has its own strict code.

Linford Christie – him again – spelt out one of the cardinal rules to me recently. "You never say that someone is better than you," he insisted. "You say they were better than you on the day. Because if you say they're better than you, and you have to race them again, where do you have to go from there?" You can't fault the logic, although when, I wonder, do you have to temper determined, open-ended optimism with reality? Would it be in order, for instance, to say that Maurice Greene was a better sprinter than you if he had just beaten you 20 times on the trot? The answer to that, I suppose, would be no. All athletes have to believe that, next time around, they can change everything.

For those who lose – if I may use that prejudicial term – the important thing is to stress that losing (sorry!) has not been defeat as such, but a step on the way towards ultimate victory. It has been a learning experience – or even better, part of a steep learning curve – leading towards enlightenment and achievement.

For the unsuccessful (sorry!) sportsman or woman, there is always the possibility of retrieving a metaphorical medal from the débâcle, assuming they can Learn From The Experience, and, most important of all, Move On. This last accomplishment is a gold medal manoeuvre, because no one can possibly criticise its virtue whatever area of life it refers to.

Stop me if I'm being unreasonable – actually please don't – but I am growing tired of interviewing athletes, or footballers, or tennis players, or skiers, or gymnasts who are world class performers in the arena of excuses.

Personally I blame the sports psychologists for all this. Twenty years ago, John Syer was a peculiarity as he engaged the minds of the Tottenham Hotspur players with a view to optimising their performances. I can remember interviewing Mark Falco, an effective smash-and-grab merchant for Spurs in those days, and spending at least half of the time available hearing how he had visualised success in front of goal.

Falco swore by it. So did his colleague Glenn Hoddle, who continues to deploy Syer on his players today. Nowadays, sports psychologists are everywhere, and it sometimes seems as if they are purveying a fine line in comforting words for those who have fallen short of their ambitions.

Years ago, I spoke to a former shot putter called Neal Brunning. He was an unremarkable athlete in all save one important respect. He openly admitted he had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Now I don't happen to believe that athletes are justified in taking drugs. I'm not one of those cynics who says, "What's the point in trying to stop it? They'll always be one step ahead of the testers. Let's just let everyone take anything they want and see who wins then." But I have to say there was something refreshing about Brunning. I didn't agree with his rationale, which was that he only did what he did because everyone else was at it too. But I did find his brutal honesty – brutal to himself, ultimately – very welcome. Whatever you thought about it, from his point of view he was telling it as it was.

As John Lennon once wailed, "Just gimme some truth, all I want is some truth." Too much of current sports reporting is conducted with a fixed, consensual grin – either real or metaphorical – in place. As the lexicon of the comfort zone expands – logically, the next formulation should be "Losing – it's the new winning" – I suppose I ought to back up the foregoing with a few uncomfortable truths myself. So I will.

Barry Cowan – losing narrowly to Pete Sampras at Wimbledon was not a great achievement.

Paula Radcliffe – you will never win a global title on the track. You might beat everyone in the marathon, though, so why dither?

Dwain Chambers – complaining about getting lane eight in the World Championship final is not good enough. You should have run better in the semi-final to earn a better shout.

Ato Boldon – Michael Johnson was right. You have sacrificed your talent to that of your training partner, Maurice Greene.

Martin Keown – despite your commitment, you are not an international player.

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