Why December is no time for heroes

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL ATHERTON's sense of timing leaves a lot to be desired. His epic, defiant innings in the Second Test against South Africa last week may well have edged him towards national hero status but he should have been aware that December is the worse possible month in which to acquire glory if you want to be engulfed by your fair share of hail, laud and honour.

No trouble with the hailing; his Johannesburg achievement has been cheered to the cold clouds above his homeland. And the lauding from all quarters has been so torrential it might easily have turned a less noble and steadfast head. But where are the honours? I fear there may be shadows on his mantelpiece where silver accolades should stand.

Through some peculiar folly, at which I have railed forlornly in the past, those who organise most of sport's annual prizes persist in virtually wiping December off the calendar. By staging their awards ceremonies during the run-up to Christmas they ensure that anyone who performs an act of outstanding sporting accomplishment in the 12th month of the year is doomed to be disregarded by the main indicators of public acclaim.

I rush to absolve the Queen from this criticism. Her Majesty probably keeps a few OBEs handy for latecomers and could squeeze Atherton into the New Year's Honours list even at this late stage. If he does get the call to Buckingham Palace, however, I suggest he makes it clear to the sentries which particular England captain he is.

Neither would it be beyond the generous spirit of the new South Africa to come up with an official recognition. I suggest an appropriate medal would be the CGBO (Can't Get the Bastard Out).

But the more normal expressions of public recognition are likely to be denied him. Unless we can quickly rustle up an inscribed box of Smarties, Atherton is far too late to receive due homage from the Sports Writers' Association. Not only did we cast our votes weeks ago, the results have already been announced. I voted for the triple-jump phenomenon Jonathan Edwards and he became the first winner I've backed all year when he took the men's title ahead of Frank Bruno. They and the other winners will receive their trophies at a glittering ball in London next week.

The Daily Express have long held a poll among readers and their top sportspeople, Jonathan Edwards and Kelly Holmes, received their awards last week. And, even as we speak, Desmond Lynam and Steve Ryder are in the queue outside the make-up department getting ready to guide the nation through tonight's Sports Review of the Year which is the BBC extravaganza that reveals the viewers' choice of the top personality and sets the seal on 1995; apart, that is, from the bit left over between now and New Year's Eve.

It is possible that Atherton can yet figure in the BBC reckoning. Their poll didn't close until Friday and a last-minute avalanche might have suddenly elevated him to the top three. Unfortunately for him, most of the votes would have been recorded before he began his impersonation of the front door of Fort Knox last weekend. It is also possible that viewers, even with more time to measure Atherton's performance, would have preferred to recognise the bounding summer achievements of Edwards and to respond to the emotion of Frank Bruno's arrival on one of the world heavyweight thrones.

Atherton's achievement, after all, was enacted to a background of failure on the part of his team. It was more Dunkirk than D-Day and, although it deserves far more than that sort of dismissal, there will be those who balance it against the great ball-tampering row of 1994. It would be a cruel devaluation but as Harold Wilson would have said: "This won't affect the dirt in your pocket." We'll never know how Atherton would have figured in these polls, apart from getting my vote. But, for the sake of the argument, let us project the impressive reality of his innings into a hypothetical future in which he has made certain other arrangements for his sporting enjoyment over the festive season.

Imagine that he proceeds to the Third Test at Durban on Thursday and scores a double-century that registers England's first win in the series. Then he catches a flight to England in time to score a hat-trick for Manchester United against Leeds on Christmas Eve and, pausing only for a frugal helping of turkey, he then travels to Kempton to ride the winner of the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.

We are taking fantasy to the limits, and if I was him I wouldn't bother, but the result would still be the same. He would not figure in what must be regarded as our chief means of acknowledging for posterity the prime performances of the year. No one has put forward a good reason why this should be.

Tonight's programme, and other similar events, would be more welcome in the dreary weeks of January by which time the entire year could be taken into account by those voting. All such polls are flawed in one way or another but if they are intended as genuine attempts to define the sporting highlights of a year they would be more satisfactory if they didn't create this limbo into which luckless heroes can fall.

MUCH as I applaud the prospect of a National Academy of Sport, towards which the Prime Minister has pledged pounds 100m from the National Lottery, I would like to make a plea on behalf of the rump of the nation, in many cases a rump that's bigger than it ought to be. The academy will be designed solely for budding champions, and rightly so, but the many millions of us who aspire to nothing more than a reasonable level of fitness would benefit from more mundane consideration; like what exactly we should be doing with these bloated bodies.

As a searcher for the maximum fitness from the minimum of effort, I was delighted last week to read that those who advocate vigorous exercise are being contradicted by the government's Health Education Authority who will soon publish new advice for less energetic but just as effective keep-fit programmes involving walks and gentle movement.

Since the HEA were previously among the supporters of the strenuous "no pain no gain" school, this represents an acrobatic U-turn and is to be welcomed especially if it drives those cheery lunatics off our television screens. But what the government must ensure is that the new campaign is simply explained and supported by advertising and television promotion. There has been too much confusion about what should be a vital contribution to the health and well-being of the nation.

SCOTLAND is indeed fortunate to have so little violence on the streets they have to go looking for it on the football field. Reports that the Procurator Fiscal is to continue taking a special interest in foul play will ensure that no elbow is safe from police scrutiny. This is either a very worthy crusade or an ingenious way of watching football on the television and getting paid overtime for it.