Sport is cut down to size

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The Independent Online
AN OLD friend, a Londoner who has lived in the United States for 30 years, never tires of the notion that most Americans, especially in his neck of the woods, find it difficult to accept that small men (jockeys apart) can achieve great things in sport. 'It is one of the reasons why soccer will never take off over here,' he said.

At 61, Derek Palmer is in excellent shape. There is barely an ounce of fat on him. You could do the weekly wash on his abdominals. It would be exceedingly unwise to pick a fight with him. But when it leaks out that he fought professionally in the lightweight division, people over there look on in disbelief. 'Come on, a little guy like you a boxer?' they say, scornfully.

In his adopted environment, the trouble for Palmer is that he stands barely 5ft 7in, which makes him as tall as the greatest footballer in history, Pele. He can look the former middleweight champion Marvin Hagler square in the eyes but nobody believes it. 'They don't want to,' he says, 'because it offends their idea of what a fighter should look like. I doubt whether Mike Tyson stands more than 5ft 10in, short for a modern heavyweight but in the public mind he's a lot taller. It's the same with film actors. Robert Redford, Paul Newman and Richard Gere aren't tall men, but you try getting that across. And, of course, the most popular American sports in the main don't cater for small men.'

Sometimes I suspect that my friend's resentment is developing into paranoia. However, it ought not to be dismissed lightly. You see, there is no guarantee that an obsession with size in sport will remain isolated to the North American continent. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that it is spreading, ultimately, I suspect, to the detriment of our sporting experience.

For example, it was put to me at Murrayfield last week that rugby is becoming a game for powerful men even in positions traditionally held by the nimble and quick-footed. 'When I look into the future I don't see much scope for the type of fly-half who dazzled us, a Cliff Morgan, a Phil Bennett,' a former internationalist said. 'That will be sad, but it seems to be the way rugby is going, the emphasis on driving attacks to soften up the opposition and reminiscent of the gridiron game. Spontaneity at a premium.'

The fact that last week's international encounters produced only two tries brings up in the minds of many people the question of whether rugby, in common with football, has already gone too far down the road of multi-purpose athleticism. This practice, it is safe to say, is an aberration in some corners of sporting society. It should at any rate jolt the popular picture of victory as the sole reason for engaging in sport, even when it is taken up professionally.

After first setting up ideals and then knocking them down, encouraged in this by the spread of commercialism, sport went on to consider the likeliest alternatives. In football it led to an extension of the competitive urge, stronger players and a work-load that wears them out prematurely; in rugby to confusing law changes that inevitably raise strength over style. Cricket sold out to the one-day game with all its rustic frenzy.

It is done. And in the long run, the children or grandchildren of this generation may suffer the results of policies that place a premium on physical presence.

We have reached a point where the impulse to take up a game is very often the impulse to earn a million and, so far in the rush to make it, there has not yet evolved a decent ethic that can discipline the game for the audience that has its mind more on the game than the million.

Power in sport has a special appeal but as it is mostly embodied by the efforts of large men, it can be misleading. One of the tenets that old-timers hold sacrosanct is that, other things being equal, a good big 'un will always beat a good little 'un.

That is all very well and good, but sport has been enriched by the deeds of small men and in reality they have been the equal of anybody.

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