Olympics 1992 Golden Grind: Mark Lawson looks at what makes the archetypal British Olympic champion

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The Independent Online
WHEN they first dreamed up the event, they might, with a moment's reflection, have called it 'limited aperture' or even 'low calibre'. But they didn't. They called it 'small bore', and Malcolm Cooper, twice Olympic gold medallist for Britain in this shooting discipline, has had to endure a lifetime of jokes.

The existence in common parlance of the title Small Bore Champion Of The World has inevitably been a blessing to political commentators during the drearier Commons and conference debates. Yet it has also achieved wider significance among sports fans as a metaphor for those Olympic events which take place on the edge of the Games: competitions like shooting, walking, sailing and rowing which are - to viewers raised on the swifter and more glamorous gratifications of track, field and pool - small and boring.

Thus, although Malcolm Cooper may very well be a vivid companion and fascinating anecdotalist, he has come to stand for a certain kind of British Olympian; the Small Bore Champion. As a holder of the relatively rare distinction of double gold (1984 and 1988), he ought to be mentioned alongside Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe, but he is not. There is a similar neglect of his compatriots who achieved single golds in other ghetto events.

British memories are properly nudged in an excellent book Tales Of Gold (Macdonald, pounds 12.99) by Neil Duncanson and Patrick Collins, which profiles all of the nation's holders of the top Olympic gong. The work confirms that - despite failing to produce mainline champions at the rate of America or the old Eastern Bloc - Britain has tended to prosper in the fringe Olympic activities. The details contained in Tales Of Gold offer an opportunity to reflect on why this should be.

It is best to dispense first with the most cynical explanation: that these are events to which few other countries bother to turn up. This seems to have been literally true only once when, in 1900, Britain gained the gold in the cricket competition; thereby accounting for 11 of the mere 370 first-place medals which the country has won. The triumphant game, though, was not merely the final but the only cricket match of the Olympiad, due to lack of entries. At Vincennes, the Devon County Wanderers - at the beginning of the Olympics, a full club team usually appeared under the national banner - beat a scratch Paris team of expatriates.

A second explanation for British dominance in the small, boring sports is that these are disciplines for which the social history or geography of Britain particularly equip its inhabitants. This was certainly true of William Dod, who took the gold for archery in the 1908 Games and had the advantage of direct descent from an archer at the Agincourt Games of 1415.

The influence of military history is also detectable in another regular gold supplier: the shooting. The victorious British team in the running deer shooting event at the 1924 Paris Olympiad was formed from First World War heroes, including a holder of the Victoria Cross. Given that another rewarding event has been the sailing - in which Britain has taken 38 first places - some may conclude that our prosperity in events held on lake or shooting range is a product of being a war-like nation surrounded by water.

Regrettably, it must be concluded - and this news is unlikely to please the egalitarian sporting occupant of 10 Downing Street - that the common thread running through Britain's minority golds is not war or water but class. Britain has done particularly well in what might be called the high society or Oxbridge disciplines: sailing, rowing, hockey, horses.

But Malcolm Cooper is not a toff and nor is Bob Braithwaite, the Yorkshire vet who came out top in the 1968 clay pigeon event. And - more palatably for analysts of the national psyche than the link of money and breeding suggested above - there is another characteristic which unites many of Britain's fringe Olympians. It is cussedness and determination in the face of others' apathy.

Typical of this is Don Thompson, who took the gold in that paradigmatically unglamorous event - the 50 kilometre walk - in Rome in 1960. Not only was he able to take the pavement stares as he practised the chicken-imitating strut which competitive walkers affect, but he nearly killed himself with carbon monoxide poisoning while seeking to recreate the steamy atmosphere of Rome with a gas stove in his bathroom.

Such stories are, perhaps, the key to Britain's marginal magnificence. America and Eastern Furope, despite their completely opposed politics, were both rewarding cultures for athletes: grants, training centres, scholarships. Britain, though, favoured self-motivation. And so this nation - which produced trainspotters, Geoffrey Boycott and families who pursue justice through the courts for decades - breeds winners who get there by slow, quiet grind, content to seek not 15 minutes of fame but 15 years of passing mentions.

(Photograph omitted)