Goodwill hunting still a valid pursuit

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The Independent Online
SINCE WE have reached the season of goodwill, it seems an apt time to discuss the subject. Not the season - which is being ruined by all this millennium crap, anyway - but the goodwill. Miraculously, we still seem to have some left in sport, even among the fiercest of rivals.

True, it is not glaringly abundant at all times, but an encouraging amount of it has survived a century in which most other sporting values have been trampled beneath the stampede of commercialism. I am talking mainly about goodwill between the top participants, where the pressures are at their most intense. Evidence that this is so came from a convincing source last week.

The retirement of Richard Dunwoody, the leading jump jockey of all time, was greeted with a mixture of sadness and relief. Sadness, that we shall be henceforth denied the sight of the skill, strength and bravery that made him the ideal partner for the dazzling Desert Orchid and which enabled him to guide West Tip and Miinnehoma to victories in the Grand National.

Relief, that he reached his final unsaddling enclosure without more serious damage to a body that has absorbed the effects of 669 falls in a career spanning 10,000 rides. The advice from medical experts in England, his native Ireland and the US was unanimous in warning him that further damage to a cumulative neck injury could rob him completely of the use of his right arm.

As it is, he has been riding with a weakened arm for a year. Even after a three-month rest since his last race, the arm is operating only at 33 per cent of its capacity. At the age of 35, the decision is made no easier by its inevitability, and it was significant that when he was recalling the many highlights of one of the greatest National Hunt adventures, the loss which caused him the most regret was of the "enormous camaraderie of the weighing-room".

That fact that you can have a drink and a night out with the other lads and yet give no quarter to each other the next day was, he said, a tribute to jump racing, "a remarkable sport in that your greatest adversaries can also be your greatest friends".

The goodwill may not flow as freely from owners and punters on every occasion, but in a sport that is tough on losers and the causes of losing, Dunwoody was admired for never giving up on a mount. All jump jockeys qualify for the respect that everyone has for the rigours of their business, which is just coming into its busy season.

Apart from the early mornings and the unfestive diets, the obvious dangers to be faced many times a day make this one of the most exacting of sporting careers. Dunwoody's success would have made him extremely well paid compared to his fellows but not to the stars in other high-profile sports, and he has certainly paid a heavier price physically for his rewards.

The current fee for a National Hunt ride is pounds 90.40, out of which the rider has to pay his own expenses. On top of that they receive seven per cent of any prize money. An average jockey would be happy to see pounds 25,000 a year, which is hardly a living weekly wage for a Premiership footballer.

There are many other sports in which that amount would not be regarded very highly, even though the attendant risks would in no way be comparable. Tennis and golf are two that spring immediately to mind and, strangely enough, in neither would you find the level of comradeship as high as that which Dunwoody will pine for in the years ahead.

Rugby has always enjoyed a fierce fellowship, although I fancy the atmosphere is not quite as carefree since professionalism took a hold. Football is a touch more difficult to read because of the way the participants blatantly take every possible liberty with each other.

Every football match seems to be one constant bitch. Player against player, not necessarily on opposite sides; managers from the touchline berating their teams; everyone chipping against the referee...

But as soon as the whistle goes they all start shaking hands; some even supplement the handshake with a friendly pat on the shoulder, and others may embrace. Even the referee benefits from the blitz of bonhomie. Occasionally, he gets chased up the tunnel and, even more occasionally, players continue their wars off the pitch for a few seconds. Pitch hostilities, however, are like holiday romances. They don't last.

One day, we may investigate whether genuine rage can disappear that quickly, but we rarely hear of the nastiest of players squaring up to each when no one is watching. Any residual anger after a match is left for the fans to express.

Maybe it is all an act, like wrestling. They fake the aggression as well as the injuries. But you would like to feel that, deep down, they are all good, mutually respectful friends. And that is how professionals should be. If boxers can fall into a cuddle after pummelling the blazes out of each other, so can all sportsmen. Although with boxers you feel that they are so glad it's all over they would kiss anyone.

Even then, we can't be sure how much goodwill has survived the century. Without doubt, genuine sportsmanship is now visible only rarely, but how many retiring heroes will think as fondly of his contemporaries as Dunwoody? Perhaps it depends purely on the sportsmen involved. Some, like jockeys and boxers, are drawn together by the hardship of their calling, while others merely share the fellowship of those who are getting away with murder.

THOSE WHO thought the great Wembley Stadium war would be all over by Christmas will be disappointed that it now seems likely to drag its tired warriors into the 2000s. There are still skirmishes breaking out about raised running tracks at the new Wembley that would be removed after the 2005 World Athletics Championships but, surely, no one continues to be serious about this.

Think of the disruption alone to the poor football and rugby league fans looking forward at last to an arena worthy of their admission money. Come to think of it, have their interests ever been considered? When the Government, the architects, the sports and the sporting administrators finish squabbling over the biggest sporting cock-up of the century, perhaps they will readjust their priorities to offering a good view, comfort and the proximity of amenities to the many thousands whose custom is almost as essential to the feasibility of the operation as a dirty great arch is.

Then, just when you thought there was no room on the bandwagon, along come Twickenham with the offer of adapting the home of English rugby to accommodate a running track for a trifling pounds 54m of Lottery money that could be filched from the Wembley project. Have they thought about asking the rugby fans? Because the place is hardly the spectator's best friend as it is. Meanwhile, we can content ourselves with the wonderfully symmetrical ring to the thought of Twickenham and the Olympics - one monstrosity being staged at another monstrosity.

THE INFLUX of foreign footballers into our game doesn't worry me as it does some. The higher the standard of our domestic football the better for all and, certainly, for the club fans who pay a stiff price for it.

But certain problems do crop up now and then. I hear of one Premiership game recently in which the sole English-born defender shouted "mine" as he went for a high ball and two Croatians and a Bosnian ran for cover.

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