Public perils of the sporting pedestal

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The Independent Online
IN THE modern world of sport, the pedestal can be as ruthlessly busy as the guillotine was in France two-hundred years ago. Whip them on, whip them off, wipe it down and start again. It keeps the mob happy and if it tends to be a messy old business at times it has the saving grace that the pedestalees usually become very rich and many of them even come away with their heads intact.

It wasn't due to be Linford Christie's turn on it last week. What with Rob Andrew, Jonah Lomu and assorted golfers, cricketers and tennis players we had a pretty crowded schedule of high- riders and since Linford hadn't run into form he was distinctly peripheral.

Today's World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand deserved to be the most dominant topic although to present it as a battle between Andrew and Lomu, "The clash of the Titans" as one front page would have it, shows how ludicrous these events can be when removed from the safety of the sports pages.

Andrew has been elevated to such a high pedestal that for his sake, if not for England's, one could wish that his drop-kick had occurred in the final so that as one of the great defining sporting moments it would already be preserved. As it is, a couple of penalties shaving the wrong side of the post this afternoon could rapidly take off the gloss.

Similarly, Lomu had better not slip up. He has been comprehensively frisked for frailties and I heard last week of doubts being expressed about him in Australian rugby league circles. "Not very good in defence and a bad attitude," was how it was put to me. All this, plus the sound of crashing Europeans coming from Shinnecock Hills, makes it a tribute to Christie's high standing in the national regard that he managed to command so much attention.

All he did was to appear on the TV programme Sport in Question, which is a very handy place for sportspeople wishing to keep a low profile. Featuring Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves, plus high-quality guests and a studio audience, it is based on the old sports forum format and is a goodish show. Unfortunately, it is one of those late-night offerings the ITV regions like to juggle around and you sometimes need a sniffer dog to find it.

But enough people were watching last Monday for Christie's emotional words - about not being able to take any more, about retiring and not defending his Olympic title next year, criticising the British Athletics Federation who are dithering over his fees and citing bad media treatment as part of his beef - to be beamed far and wide and for him to become the subject of profound psychoanalysis. It's not that the press is ultra- sensitive, it's just that anybody who criticises us needs to have his head examined - by us.

The desire to discover what makes a superstar tick is basic to a sportswriter's existence. Sometimes we get close enough to find that the ticking is an unexploded bomb and Christie's impersonation of one was put down to all manner of reasons ranging from his age, the fact he'd been beaten in four out of five races this season to a protest at the lack of respect shown to him.

That his mother had been in an intensive care unit while all this was transpiring and died on Thursday before he was due to race in Nuremburg threw a rebuking silence over the matter. No one would have dwelt on Christie's outburst had they known of his mother's condition, but it was a reminder that life imposes more strains on a man than sport ever does and our deep sympathy for Christie is accompanied by the hope that the events of last week will now be forgotten.

When his grief clears sufficiently for him to take another look at the future, I hope he will decide to prolong his career at least until the Olympic Games. There has been much talk about the wisdom of his quitting while he's on top, and sprinting, more than most sports, would encourage that ambition. While the aggressive style that made Christie the world and Olympic champion will be long remembered, one hasn't time in the 100 metres to admire style in someone finishing third.

A footballer or cricketer who goes on into the veteran stage can continue to reward his followers with glimpses of brilliance. Old tennis players can still produce a heave from the matronly bosoms and even the most doddery golfers push their retirement date further back every year.

No one would blame Christie if he wants to step down unaided from his pedestal, but a nation that holds him in higher esteem than he thinks would want him to carry on. Perhaps there is a faster man waiting to take his Olympic title but Linford shouldn't give it away. He should go to Atlanta and make the bugger run for it.

A BLOW has been struck on behalf of all those who believe that some sporting organisations have more power than is good for them or their sport. It has been landed, furthermore, on the most powerful and autocratic of them all.

My call for an independent tribunal which could adjudicate on the misuse of authority by governing bodies was aimed at this country. The International Olympic Committee has far too much strength to be policed by anyone short of the United Nations and I wouldn't give them a dog's chance.

But the best control is that wielded from within and in Budapest on Thursday the IOC overruled no less a person than their president, Juan Antonio Samaranch. He was behind a proposal that the constitution of the IOC be changed to raise the committee's age limit from 75. It so happens that Samaranch is 75 next birthday.

A rule change would mean he could have another term as president which would take him up to the year 2001. He could continue his rule of the Olympics beyond his 80th birthday and, who knows, he might even fancy trying to outlast the eternal flame.

Alas, he failed by one vote to get the necessary majority. There is still time for him to reverse the decision but it is a setback and, although the Olympics could have worse rulers than Samaranch, an encouragement to all those who believe that the administration of sport should not be the right of a protected few.

AMID all the clamour and excitement out in South Africa it might not be generally appreciated that the trophy they are playing for is named after William Webb Ellis, of Rugby School, where they used to play football in the manner suggested by its name - with the feet.

In 1823, young Webb Ellis disturbed the natural order of this fine game. As a plaque at the school reads: "With a fine disregard of the rules, he picked up the ball and ran with it." Thus did rugby begin and it is an odd coincidence that the school was in the headlines for a different reason last week when it appointed its first head girl. Rugby School has been co-educational for only two years and the promotion of a young lady to top pupil has caused a furore among traditionalists.

Soccer lovers might think it a shame that Rugby wasn't co- educational in 1823. Instead of picking up a ball, William Webb Ellis might have been more interested in picking up a girl.