Making a case for effing and blinding

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ONCE, I heard Muhammad Ali swear. He was sitting in a bungalow alongside the Zaire river and, remembering the presence of his aunt, Corletta, who was one of only four people present, he shaped, rather than spoke the F- word. 'I done f****d up a lot of minds,' he said.

Since he had made fools of the majority, knocking out George Foreman to become the three-times heavyweight champion when fears were being held out for him, this was an undeniable truth.

A cosmic victory, it thus persuaded from Ali the rare use of an expletive. There was no better way of putting it and you put it down for posterity. 'Not in this newspaper you don't,' said my employer at the time.

This week, in a televised repeat of the 1966 World Cup film, Goal, you could lip-read the agonised response of England's footballers when West Germany equalised to send the final into extra time. The F-word was obvious even on the lips of those whose sportsmanship went unquestioned.

This week, too, you could read about the penalty for code violation imposed on Andrea Gaudenzi, of Italy, after twice swearing in protest at decisions when losing to Goran Ivanisevic in the French Open tennis championships.

Doubtless, there are people sensing with trepidation and disfavour further encroachments on propriety during the Wimbledon fortnight, the capacity of the over-paid and over-exposed to smash the restraints of something called the Establishment.

The tone of sport in this decade is set by an elite corps, the best of the pros, that is to say by the richest games people: the stars who have sweated their way up to prodigious salaries, are admiringly interviewed by sycophants and receive the same adoring space as rock and television stars.

Money has got to be a primary reason why today's stars are so difficult to control, blatant in their disrespect for authority and scornful of convention.

Let's accept that times have changed. The fans who pay to subsidise the fortunes made in sport accept high jinks and low jinks as part of the show. Few appear to be dismayed by violations of public courtesy.

Chances are that when the audience in Paris heard Gaudenzi's outburst they asked themselves what was so unusual about that, and went on to applaud the next point.

Television has something to do with this. Over the years it has come up with new tricks, aural as well as visual, on the misguided premise that realism is central to an appreciation of sport. In moments of anguish the language is often coarse.

A personal view is that television has gone too far with its intrusions, but in any case the attitude to swearing is essentially generational. Used viciously, swearing can be vile, an affront to human dignity. Once, I heard the former heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, obscenely assault an aide for a minor misdemeanour. It was horrible.

Foolishly, the former England football manager, Graham Taylor, allowed television to intrude upon the frustration building up in his mind when unsuccessfully attempting to qualify for this month's World Cup finals. Frequent use of the F-word, if commonly employed by coaches, causes widespread embarrassment.

Nobody has ever been able to lay down a rule determining how much inner torment sports performers must endure before giving vent to their feelings. Ideally, the conventions would be observed fully and verbal ugliness muted. Unfortunately, it is not an ideal sporting world. There are few candidates for sainthood.