Winter Olympics: T&D's 'failure' was to aspire: Hugh Jones, winner of the London Marathon in 1982, defends the right of champions to come back

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The Independent Online
SO Torvill and Dean failed. We know because some media pundits said so. They may have blamed it on the judgements of dastardly foreigners, but enough recrimination comes out of these highly-hyped occasions for it also to be heaped upon the performers themselves. What did they do to deserve it?

They dared. They aspired to a great competitive goal. No doubt to the victory that we all hoped would be theirs, but athletic motivations are more complicated than that, and so are the rewards. Did they think they had failed when the gold medals eluded them?

Most competitors aspire to great heights, and most fall short of them. Any other way, and sport would be far less exciting. Those who reach the pinnacle, step down, and then try again are up against more than just the opposition.

They must fight to fulfil expectations - their own, of course, but also those of others which are inflated beyond reason. Rory Underwood and Lester Piggott could hardly have failed to disappoint their cheerleaders. In one-on-one sports like tennis and boxing the syndrome is at its worst. Returning champions are built up with highly speculative pre-publicity to make the knock-out more 'newsworthy' when it comes. Bjorn Borg and George Foreman sustained the treatment, and so did the twice-disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson.

Exponents of the comeback are marked from the moment they announce their intentions. Previous achievement identifies them as a threat to the current champions. The whole contest then becomes shaped around their challenge by promoters and commentators.

In this fantasy world the original aims of the athletes are hijacked and subverted. We are led to speculate on 'the tormented psychology of the retired performer', on the possibility that they will 'tarnish the image' that their previous performances have cultivated in public consciousness. This really says more about the tormented psychology of commentators and couch potatoes than any athletic reality.

Slumped in an armchair, flipping the pages of a paper or gazing at the TV screen, who are we to tell top athletes what they should or should not do? Do we own a piece of them simply by turning on the TV?

Twelve long years ago I won the London Marathon. I next contested it in 1986, finishing second. In 1987 I was third; in 1988 fourth. Had there been more of a media profile to this sequence of performances, it could hardly have been billed as anything other than the passing of a competitive peak and a descent of the slippery slope into oblivion.

In the terms by which Torvill and Dean are judged, such a competitive record would have been unacceptable. Sporting juries, like those in the courtroom, are no doubt affected by pre-trial publicity.

In certain high-profile sports, especially those involving exclusive showings, there is little freedom for performers to follow their own ambitions rather than those prescribed for them by casual onlookers. In less publicity-distorted sports, most challengers dislodge champions with little fanfare. There are always enough worthy but untipped contenders for one of them to raise their performance on the required day and snatch the prize. There is no assumed script in the background; the unexpected is expected. London Marathon winners don't generally retain their titles, and at the last attempt I was down to 15th place - but no one is going to tell me I shouldn't have another go.

Did Torvill and Dean fail? They themselves are the only ones who can properly understand the question, let alone answer it.

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