One man's view coloured by prejudice

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The Independent Online
FOLLOWERS of international sport have long learned not to judge a man by the colour of his shirt. Even in the closest-knit national teams, the merits of each individual contribution is placed under microscopic examination by those whom they represent. This has been the case for more than a century during which time the fools, the fainthearted, the untalented, the half-baked, the reckless, the sick, the lame, the lazy, the seedy and the greedy have been winkled out regardless of background.

During the past seven days, however, we have been advised that this process of patriotic screening has been less than thorough because we have overlooked more obvious criteria in judging our countrymen for their suitability to fight sporting battles on our behalf.

Robert Henderson was thinking particularly of England and of cricket when he wrote in Wisden Cricket Monthly that English players with black skin don't play for the country with the same fervour as those who are white. Henderson's theme places him further up the racist pole than the fascist followers of the England football team who don't like black players for the uncomplicated reason that they are black rather than possessing perceivable frailties as footballers.

Neither does he confine his complaint to black players; any outsider will do. He finds it difficult to accept that "a changing-room comprising of, say, six Englishmen, two West Indians, two southern Africans and a New Zealander is going to develop the same camaraderie as 11 unequivocal Englishmen".

There is no need to spend any further time foaming at the bigotry of Henderson who, as a former tax inspector, obviously finds it difficult to break the habit of upsetting people. In the past week, he has suffered the punditry equivalent of being taken behind the bicycle sheds and given a good hiding. But even after beating his intolerance to a pulp you are still left with a basic premise which is so wide of the mark to be almost amusing.

In the days when English teams at most sports were composed exclusively of "unequivocal Englishmen" they had great difficulty in summoning enough patriotic fervour to blow out a candle and even on their doorstep found it impossible to match the fighting spirit displayed by those wearing the shirts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. There are several reasons for this, not least the size and diversity of England compared with the more clearly defined identities of the Celtic tribes but it was a clear deficiency none the less. Indeed, it is only in more modern times - when the so-called dilution of the thoroughbred Englander has taken place - that the English have discovered a fiery accord more likely to equal that of their neighbours.

The point is that the Englishness lamented by Henderson has more to do with class than it has with nationalism. Most of our main sports were born of, and developed by, the English higher classes principally through public schools. The summer sporting scene in England remains a thriving example of how one's level in the social strata can be displayed publicly by the enclosure from which one watches the action, assuming that one cares to.

To expect that England would continue to draw most of their players from this portion of the nation while ignoring the products of their past colonial involvement is as ludicrous as it is offensive to question the suitability of these reinforcements. And to suggest that purity of blood is required for the proper nourishment of a nation's interests is as abhorrent now as it was in Germany 50 years ago.

The former Yugoslavian football team were invariably impressive and enthusiastically supported. For the past few years, the various factions once represented in that proud team have been busily trying to annihilate each other. Neither did the often splendid team playing in colours of the old Soviet Union demonstrate the divisions that have now become apparent.

In September, the golfers of the United States and Europe will contest the Ryder Cup in Rochester, New York, and patriotism will reach no higher pitch than in that encounter. The players involved earn their living in a game that is utterly self-centred yet for that one week each team will unite as if they come from neighbouring villages not two continents.

Rigid frontiers are fast disappearing and with them the old rigid concepts of who we are. No one has the right to question the validity of a man's allegiance and the sadness of the controversy generated by Henderson's sentiments is that the contribution to this nation of the players he slights has been far more generous and sincere than our contribution to them.

In embarrassing contrast has been the enthusiastic response to our newly acquired tennis player, Greg Rusedski, although I have to admit to a certain hesitation in my welcome. I'd feel better if he didn't have the strength of the International Management Group behind him. It is one thing to rejoice when a young man discovers his true patriotic roots. It is another when his motivation might be a smart agent spotting a gap in the market.

AS A fervent opponent of opening betting shops on Sundays, I found it no surprise to read last week that the bookmakers are complaining of a severe lack of Sabbath business. Despite the bookies' claims, there was never any demand for Sunday betting and those of us who emphasised this were shouted down.

Few objected to Sunday racing, or even betting on the course, but the Thatcher government came up with the amazing conclusion that you couldn't have races without opening all the betting shops in the country. When they eventually experimented with Sunday racing, without any betting at all, crowds flocked to the tracks. This, said the bookies, was final proof that the nation wanted betting on Sunday. I thought it proved exactly the opposite; that people were prepared to go to meetings for reasons other than having a bet.

And so they are. At Doncaster last Sunday, the television cameras proudly panned around the 13,000 crowd as happy families enjoyed the spectacle. Trouble is, say the bookies, they are not proving to be prolific punters. Perhaps the book- makers, and their many sympathisers on both sides of the House of Commons, may care to think twice before they claim again to know what the people want.

BOOKMAKERS were at it again at Wimbledon. They took a large amount of money on Cedric Pioline to beat Boris Becker at 7-2 on Wednesday and then started squealing about it. This is becoming an annoying habit.

If bookies want to take bets on sporting events they should take them. If they are worried about them, they should refuse them. What they shouldn't do is take the money first and then make public their paranoid suspicions, thereby casting a shadow on the people taking part.

As it happens, Becker could have easily lost that match and had he done so could not have avoided the uneasy doubts that would have followed. By so narrowly losing what was a superb duel, Pioline proved what berks the bookies were to quote him at 7-2.

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