Friday 8 April 2011
Brian Viner: So should our sports stars get free train travel?
Six days after India's stirring victory over Sri Lanka in the final of the cricket World Cup, the subcontinent's version of secular sainthood has been conferred on the team, and in particular on the captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. As if the cricketers needed any reminder of the glory they have brought upon their nation, glory already compounded by a 10m rupee (£143,000) bonus for each player (and double that for Dhoni), a grateful property company has promised them each a new house in a swish development on the outskirts of Delhi. Leaving home will be a pleasure, too. The players and their families have been offered complimentary first-class travel on the country's railways for the rest of their lives.
Meanwhile, Dhoni, whose match-winning innings of 91 culminated in a storybook ending, a spectacular six into a euphoric crowd, suddenly finds himself an honorary lieutenant-colonel in the Indian army. And politicians have announced that in tribute to Dhoni, the remote village of Lwali in rural Uttarakhand, in which the heroic captain's father was raised, will now get the proper road for which villagers have been pleading for years.
By comparison, the MBEs dished out to our own sporting achievers look a little tame. The open-top bus parade through Trafalgar Square in 2005, hastily organised to celebrate the triumph of our cricketers in at long last winning an Ashes series against Australia, is frequently cited as a regrettable act of hubris, not least because most of the same men suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the Aussies just over a year later. Still, it could have been worse. At least Freddie Flintoff didn't trudge back from Australia feeling compelled to resign as an honorary colonel in the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, with Andrew Strauss wondering whether he might have to give back his mock-Tudor mansion in Borehamwood, or Kevin Pietersen his first-class seat on South-West Trains.
That's the problem with honouring sporting achievers; success in sport, even success in World Cups, is a transient business, and what now if Dhoni and his players are humbled in their Test series against England this summer? Might they start getting resentful looks in those train compartments? Moreover, this showering of gifts and honours positively invites cynicism. From Delhi to Downing St, few politicians can resist sucking up to bona fide national heroes, plainly in the hope that some of that popularity might rub off on them.
The irony is that sportsmen are already wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of those who lionise them, and in this country, it's always seemed to me faintly distasteful that a footballer earning £100,000 a week or more, or even a cricketer or rugby player earning rather less, can expect a gong on top of all the dosh and public adulation.
On the other hand, there are times when it's easier just to join in the applause, and maybe we should all rejoice in the joy that World Cup victory has brought to more than a billionIndians. Indeed, if someone could harness the power of sport on the subcontinent, there would, with or without decent roads, at least be a reliable electricity supply to every village.
I hope my friend John is playing it again in heaven
Shortly before we moved from London to Herefordshire nine years ago, a friend who'd already left London for Gloucestershire told me that one of the pleasures of living in the country was befriending people from different generations, on the basis that with far fewer people to choose from, you gravitate towards kindred spirits, however old they might be.
She was spot on. Within a year of us arriving in the Welsh Marches, five of the most cherished of our new friends, with whom we had riotously entertaining lunches every couple of months, were in their sixties and seventies, moving in due course, into their seventies and eighties.
The only downside to this is the obvious one. Last year, our dear friend Nancy died, and last weekend she was followed by our beloved friend John, whose gregarious company had been one of the great pleasures of our post-London life. John, a retired vicar, told wonderful stories. In 1966 he was attached to a church in Amblecote, near Stourbridge, where a man from the diocesan magazine came to interview him. John was young, attractive, single and highly charismatic. He was also gay. But that hadn't occurred to his interviewer, who said: "I don't understand, Father, why you're not married. Do tell me what you look for in a prospective wife?"
John smiled. "I would want someone who likes dogs and looks like Ingrid Bergman," he replied, hardly expecting this innocuous remark to be picked up by the local paper, then several national newspapers, then the Toronto Star and the New York Times. In the Sunday Express, a Giles cartoon featured a vicar's housekeeper telling him that Ingrid Bergman was on the phone. For a few days, John was world-famous, and I can picture him now, over a celestial glass of champagne, telling Ingrid Bergman the story and making her weep with laughter, as we did.
Never seen a hump in the road quite like this
Anne, Britain's last circus elephant, has just retired to Longleat safari park. Hurrah! I've disapproved of animals in circuses since I was eight, a bit early for an animal-rights conscience, but even at that age I was embarrassed by the spectacle of an elephant slipping on some lion-dung as it clomped into the Big Top.
That said, there's been a circus in a field near us this week, and the sight of a camel looking ponderously over the hedgerows on to the A49 to Hereford was joyously surreal – I suppose like finding a cider press in the Sahara.
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