Sport On TV: All that sweetness, but still a bitter aftertaste

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The Independent Online
Someone pointed out to me this week that the Independent and Independent on Sunday's racing pages never carry pictures of horses being shot, which seemed at first to be one of the more inane observations of the last 12 months. They are family newspapers, after all. The readers wouldn't like it.

And yet, after a little reflection, I could at least see the gist of his point. It is not as if the death of a horse on a racecourse is a rare occurrence, or even relatively so. About 200 a year are killed in action, which is four a week, or one every one and a half days. Some die instantly, perhaps from a broken back or neck, but the rest must wait for the vet and his bullet. It is an almost daily fact of racing life.

But no one wants to be told about that, and they certainly don't want to see it over the breakfast tea and toast. In fact, for many people it is probably among the great attractions of sport in general that you can pick out the bits you like, and ignore the ones you don't. That's what everyone else does, and after all, we are not talking about war or poverty or food shortages here. It's only sport.

Sometimes, though, there are moments when there is no getting away from the shocking and permanent consequences which a few sports may bring with them. Such as when Muhammad Ali, who was about to be named the Sports Celebrity of the Century (BBC1), was asked to sit on a sofa while four other boxers, not one of whom would have been able to live with the young Ali in terms of fighting or bantering, talked about him, and around him.

Officially, of course, the diagnosis of the condition which afflicts Ali is Parkinson's disease, and many people who have never seen the inside of a boxing ring develop the same debilitating and incurable symptoms. Ali's condition may or may not have been caused, or exaggerated, by a boxing career which included some of the most punishing fights the "game" has seen. It is something that we will never know for sure.

There are few people, though, who do not suspect that boxing probably had something, and possibly everything, to do with it. This made Ali's appearance last Sunday a disturbing and agonising experience. It also meant that this year's Sports Review was a far more challenging exercise than the usual, happy-clappy smug-fest.

Not that the BBC seemed to have planned it that way. Lynam-less they may have been - and strangely, this was the first time it really came home to you that he had gone - but the new crew of Rider, Barker, Inverdale and Balding still gave their all in the chummy-and- cheerful department. So much so, in fact, that - quite incredibly - they did not find even 10 seconds in the course of 90 minutes to mention the three riders killed in cross-country events this year.

This upbeat mood meant that Ali's entrance was a tricky one to pitch. How do you celebrate the arrival of someone who everyone thinks has been debilitated by the very thing you are celebrating him for? In the end, everyone in the audience just stood, applauded and cheered, as they had for Lennox Lewis, only more so.

The warmth, though, made it no less sorrowful that one of the finest specimens of humanity, both physically and mentally, that anyone has seen is now barely in control of his limbs. And this with a brain which is still as sharp as ever. Normally, the torture of losing control of body but not mind would not bear thinking about. Now, just for once, there was no choice.

The BBC, no doubt, did not want Ali to overshadow their celebration of an entire century of sport, but it was inevitable that he would. People voted for him as their all-time favourite, almost to the exclusion of anyone else, because in his prime he was as talented, as exhilarating and as irresistible as he always said he was.

If they are old enough, they may be grateful for the memory of a time when they were all those things, too. But some will also have felt a twinge of remorse, guilt even, a sense that they somehow played a part in what has happened to Ali since.

He was, of course, a fully grown and highly intelligent man who went into boxing knowing the dangers. He may also believe that his declining health has nothing to do with his time in the ring. But someone has to ask whether the glory was worth it, and how many more boxers will be asked to pay a similar price.

Perhaps I was in a minority of one in finding Ali's appearance both disturbing and depressing, and hardly cause for celebration. Certainly, most newspapers the following day preferred words like "moving" and "poignant". But then, they didn't carry any pictures of horses being shot, either.