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.

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