Heroes brave the agony of the odyssey

In a gallant attempt to prove to their fellow humans that active life can be prolonged well beyond the limits that convention imposes upon us, a group of sportsmen last week demonstrated their eagerness to defy the march of time. Steve Redgrave, Jonathan Davies, Peter Shilton, Clive Walker, Rob Andrew, Herol Graham and Nigel Mansell were among those prepared to ignore any protesting creaks from their bodies to dedicate themselves to the continuance of their sporting odysseys.

While they were doing so, they passed a stampede of French lorry drivers heading in the opposite direction. I speak metaphorically, of course, because not many lorry drivers in that country have been stampeding anywhere. But, if clogging up the Continent earns them nothing else, the French strikers have already succeeded in forcing their government to lower their retirement age to a ridiculous 55. I am sure there are those who are spent by then but, on the other hand, there are heavyweight boxers close to that age who are busy eyeing up future opponents. While we might regret that development, it is no time for a man to volunteer to cease his career. That sad fact will be vouchsafed by any of the many forlorn souls who find themselves prematurely on the scrap-heap.

What has this to do with sport? Part of the justification for sport playing such a large part in our lives - and it does, whether you like it or not, if you own a television set - is that it can perform an important social service. Whether we are participating or watching, sport can channel aggression into relatively peaceful activity, it can fulfil many of our emotional needs and patriotic obsessions and, most importantly, set an example that can inspire.

Many mistakenly believe that this means sportsmen have a responsibility to provide us with moral guidance. This is nonsense. Sports people have no more responsibility to set a behavioural example than film stars, plumbers or even journalists. Politicians, clerics, officers of the law and their like have a duty to uphold the standards they preach but sports stars, provided they obey the laws by which they are governed, carry no such burden. Their efforts can teach us the value of dedication and application; how to stay calm and philosophical through the ups and downs; and how to refuse to let others draw our horizons from us.

Steve Redgrave imposed his own limits when, after winning his fourth Olympic gold medal in Atlanta, he declared that anyone who saw him reach for an oar should shoot him. Mercifully, the new hand-gun laws came just in time to stop a shot ringing out across the Thames when Redgrave clambered into a rowing boat on Thursday to confirm that he would challenge for a fifth gold in the 2000 Olympics. You can't measure the inspirational power that decision will create.

Redgrave's determination to carry on was entirely personal. In a team game, a player's survival depends not only on self-confidence but the faith of others. Jonathan Davies's presence in the Welsh team today at the age of 34 is down mostly to his own triumph in defeating the debilitating forces that dogged his comeback to union in the first half of the year. There were few who believed he could reclaim a shirt he last wore eight years ago and to do so he needed to convince the Welsh coach, Kevin Bowring.

It is a brave step for both but one that is appreciated by all who relish witnessing a genuine challenge. It may well have persuaded Australia to play David Campese, three days older than Davies, in the same match. Campese has announced that it will be his last international. What's the hurry? Rob Andrew, the former England outside-half, is also 34 and he gave notice last week that he, too, is emboldened to try to win his place back. The former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton has signed for Leyton Orient at the age of 47 and Clive Walker, seven months short of 40, scored Woking's FA Cup tie winner against Millwall on Tuesday. These are exceptions to the general rule but they needn't be exceptional if more refused to be bound by general rules.

In certain sports, like Herol Graham's boxing and Nigel Mansell's motor racing, there may be worries about personal safety to be considered. And if you are seeking an opposite trend look no further than tennis from which Stefan Edberg is retiring before his 31st birthday. Mind you, it is the sort of game in which boredom sets in long before the threat of arthritis.

Sport is never better than when it attacks the normal and contrives to revive our flagging spirits. Since all the mountains have been climbed and the oceans conquered where else are the true adventures?

Racing lost one of its most familiar voices last week with the death of the Irish commentator Michael O'Hehir who had been retired for some years but whose distinctive rapid-fire tones still echo around the tracks. Next year we shall lose the voice of all voices when Peter O'Sullevan retires after 50 years at the microphone. The great man was on duty yesterday at Newbury, reading the Hennessy Gold Cup and reminding us of what we'll be missing. Front- runner for the unenviable job of replacing him is the Australian Jim McGrath whose commentaries to date are a touch lacking in the mellifluence department and apt to be peppered with expressions like "he's got a good posie" or "he's in the cat-bird seat", to describe a horse well-placed, and "he's got a saloon passage up the rails".

The BBC have been very fortunate that they have been able to replace previous institutions without too much of a jolt to the eardrums. Indeed, John Barrett on tennis sounds more like Dan Maskell with each passing shot. I now find Peter Alliss's voice indistinguishable from that of Henry Longhurst and there's more than one Alliss voice taking shape in the pipeline.

Whether McGrath can shadow O'Sullevan as smoothly, we will have to see. There is no reason why he shouldn't develop his own style, as long as he pleases us and doesn't frighten the horses.

When he is not bullying helpless Football Association underlings on the radio, David Mellor is busy on the after-dinner speech circuit where I am told he can command a fee in excess of pounds 4,000 - thereby creating an opportunity for the next Chancellor to introduce a special windbag tax.

I'm not sure how much Mellor is in demand so soon after a meal but guests at a prestigious dinner to honour the 125th anniversary of Twickenham, organised by the Rugby Football Union on Thursday, were surprised to see his name on the menu as the final speaker. Since Mellor's knowledge of rugby union has yet to be revealed, they could scarcely contain their curiosity.

Following excellent speeches from such as Jeff Probyn and Ian Robertson, Mellor got to his feet, confessed ignorance about the game and launched into 25 minutes of jokes about Chelsea FC. It wasn't even a speech, I am told, just a stand-up comedy routine.

Rugby lovers everywhere will be aghast that such a proud milestone in the history of the game's headquarters should be thus celebrated. Thankfully, Twickenham was still standing yesterday so there's no real harm done.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company provides IT support...

Recruitment Genius: IT Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manager is for a successfu...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£13676.46 - £15864.28 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Re...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific