Sense of loss in nation blind to heroes

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So how did it happen? We get only our second world heavyweight champion boxer of the century, and he loses out in a telephone poll to a man doing an extended version of hopscotch, the fact that he did it very well being a secondary consideration to why he did it at all. These crude reactions must have been widespread last Sunday evening when the triple jump world record-holder Jonathan Edwards pipped Frank Bruno to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. I don't mind admitting that my jaw dropped as if Frank had tapped it with his right hand.

A more mature assessment conducted over the following days made allowances for Edwards's engaging personality and gushing modesty, and the fact that the International Amateur Athletics Federation had elected him their Male Athlete of the Year began to give some previously unnoticed weight to his achievements. It also occurred to me that Edwards might have tapped into that streak of British middle-class eccentricity - by- products of which are Cruft's and the Antiques Road Show - which elevates the unusual to the status of celebrity without regard to intrinsic merit.

The vote, which had previously given the BBC award to Torvill and Dean for their medal-winning but hopelessly naff "Bolero" on ice, was another manifestation of odd British sentiment overruling rational assessment.

But a certain puzzlement still remained. I toyed with the idea of a racist reluctance on the part of the Great British public to give a black man such a high-profile award, but then ruled it out on the grounds that not even the most foul member of the National Front could deny Frank Bruno's Englishness, nor his mass popularity.

Then I realised that the most obvious reason the public had not voted sufficiently for Frank was that they had not actually seen him win his title when he beat Oliver McCall on points in September, because the broadcast was on Sky that night. No highlights had been shown on the BBC, and only a brief clip had been released to the news bulletins. Edwards, in contrast, strutted his stuff on prime-time television.

This notion was supported by another piece of evidence. When the award for second place had been announced for Bruno, I'd immediately triple jumped to the conclusion that Mike Atherton had won the big one. It seemed so obvious - a heroic, defiant innings, widely praised on a world scale, backed up by his summer-long excellence, and all achieved several days before the polls closed. Surely a late surge of patriotism had swung the vote?

If I could have found a bookie operating after 9pm on a Sunday, I'd have taken any odds he was offering at that moment on Atherton making it to the crease to win. What seemed conclusive was that the Lancastrian had appeared on the show earlier, speaking from South Africa. Many years of watching This is Your Life had conditioned me for that cheesy moment when the curtain goes back to reveal somebody who has been flown 10,000 miles for the emotional finale. But Athers did not get it either, and what he had in common with Bruno was that his finest achievement had also not been seen by a mass audience.

Now, leaving aside the implications for our sports stars of which awards they may or may not win, the wider issue is what sort of sporting folk- memory the dishless classes are going to be left with. I saw Bruno win because I was reporting the fight, but I've got no visual imagery of the Ryder Cup victory, nor of Atherton's innings in Johannesburg. It is impossible not to be touched by both achievements, but without the pictures hanging in the gallery of the mind, they don't mean as much has they should.

This does not mean to say that we are completely lost. Before television covered sport, newspapers and radio fed our imaginations with their reports of distant achievements. I am sure that George Bailey's agonisingly hushed commentary on Philip Walton's crucial Ryder Cup putt for Radio 5 electrified those who could not see the pictures. And if you re-read something like Hugh McIlvanney's account of Dawn Run's 1986 Cheltenham Gold Cup victory, it is more pulsatingly alive in his prose than in your own memory.

But we seem to be moving into an age of visual literalism, where CD-ROM, world-wide cabling, and satellite images - all expensively acquired - fragment our perceptions of events and even of knowledge itself. Sport is now irretrievably part of the software, and if we can't or won't pay for it, our memories inevitably will be diminished. We will only get what we see.

Last Tuesday, the two French air force pilots missing since August were handed over safe and relatively sound by the Bosnian Serb military leadership after it had apparently yielded to strong pressure from the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic. This was all done with remarkably good timing as regards the signing of the peace treaty in Paris last Thursday, leading to suspicions that a deal of some sort had been agreed between the French and the Serbs.

The French foreign ministry made strenuous denials of this, but within hours of the pilots' release, the Fifa World Cup draw in Paris had somehow managed to place Serbia's old friends, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina all in the same, five-team qualifying group where they will, if you'll excuse the expression, fight it out for a place in the 1998 tournament in France.

Equally strange, what remains of Yugoslavia - Serbia and Montenegro - was placed in a six-team group boasting the under-achieving Spanish, the no-hopers of Malta, the Faroe Islands and the recently divorced teams of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It would, of course, be fanciful to suggest that something was done to stitch up Serbia's former enemies, or to keep any of them from turning up in the same group as Yugoslavia, or to ease the passage of Milosevic's boys to France. It must all be a coincidence, n'est-ce pas?

The fall-out from last Saturday's late cancellation of racing at Cheltenham continues, with the Jockey Club holding an inquiry into the shortcomings of the Acting Clerk of the Course, Edward Gillespie. His decision not to call an inspection, despite a heavy overnight frost, and his subsequent bullish announcements about the prospects for racing led around 10,000 racegoers and scores of trainers and horses to arrive at the course only for them to find that Mr Gillespie had been wildly optimistic.

"I suppose we should have kept the public informed," Gillespie conceded afterwards. One of Gillespie's defences was that he could get his stick through the frost and into the ground. I would propose a more reliable yardstick. My late mother would often hang my pyjamas on a washing line in winter and, depending on their level of stiffness the following morning, she could deliver a long-range weather forecast covering several days. I commend this to Mr Gillespie, especially if he takes the additional step of staying inside the pyjamas himself.

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