Sport: Nobody in the student body seemed to think that England's record mattered very much

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The Independent Online
A short while ago, the tenant in this space had the experience of learning at first hand how politicians must feel when a motion proposed confidently comes under terminal bombardment. It was at Exeter Uni-versity, when putting forward for debate the idea that we are a second- class sporting nation.

Far from being persuaded by the facts of history, most of the speakers were vehement in opposition. There was, of course, a generational aspect to this but it set me thinking again about sport and what, in our separate ways, we want from it.

For example, it did not appear important to the main body of opinion that the England rugby team had recently lost at home to New Zealand and South Africa and that Wales were wiped out by New Zealand at Wembley.

It was equally dismissive of the view that occupying 36th place in the medals' table at last year's Olympics in Atlanta, along with England's failure to regain the Ashes from Australia, were clear indications of Britain's modern sporting status.

It was fun facing that youthful semi-circle and comforting to realise that their notion of achievement in sport is not influenced by the excesses of media criticism.

The most striking thing was their rejection of the proposal that we spread our sporting resources across too broad a spectrum, expecting arrogantly to win at all the games we exported.

``I don't read arrogance into that,'' one young man said. ``In fact I think it's admirable. It's terrific when British teams win, gives us all a lift, but the main thing is Britain's contribution to sport. That's why so much of the criticism we read and hear is so stupid.''

By then seeking cover, I advanced the view that nothing in British sport suggests comparatively modest achievement than the record of England's football team. Just one World Cup victory and one other appearance in the semi-finals.

Two things in the response to this fascinated me. One was that nobody in the student body seemed to think that England's record mattered very much. The other was how quick they were to defend Britain's sporting reputation.

Warming to the theme of representation, another speaker listed outstanding sports figures - Stanley Matthews, Bobby Charlton, Sebastian Coe, Denis Compton, Linford Christie, Bobby Moore, Ian Botham.

``We've still got people who are thought to be among the best in the world,'' she said. ``Steve Redgrave, Colin Montgomerie, Nick Faldo, Alan Shearer, Ryan Giggs, Naseem Hamed and Lennox Lewis. It isn't just about winning.''

When agreeing to take part in that debate I had no idea what entertainment was in store. Somewhere in the back of my mind I suspected that results would not be acceptable as criteria but imagined that we would eventually fall in together.

You only have to ponder that for a moment to infer what it implies; a mind so inflexible, so hardened by long experience that no allowances are made for the conclusions of an advancing generation.

In fact, the charge of cynicism sits heavily on the shoulders of a Welsh romantic. There is no quarrel here with those, young or old, who believe that British sport is much better than it is often painted.

Shortly after the motion I proposed was left in shreds England held, and almost overcame, the All Blacks at Twickenham. The news from Sharjah puts English cricket in a better light. Sport can be like that.

Some of the people who poured scorn on England's cricketers last summer are now waxing ecstatic. It must be comforting to have it both ways. Unfortunately this is taken up by many who follow British sport and think themselves patriots.

England and, to a lesser extent, Scotland will carry great expectations into next year's World Cup finals. England's coach, Glenn Hoddle, is running a risk in encouraging optimism because it could easily rebound on him.

Editorials sometimes abuse British sport so unfairly, with such scant regard for the truth as to strip the criticism of validity.

A personal point of view is that for a comparatively small nation we do rather well. If people would only get that into their heads it would be a step in the right direction.