Brian Viner: Trouble in Toytown as sporting gods play

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The Independent Online

On Monday afternoon, I motored through the Cotswolds – one never drives through the Cotswolds, only motors – with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. It was a glorious day, the kind of still, summer's day of which P G Wodehouse wrote that one could hear the roar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadow.

Moreover, I was on my way home from the British Equestrian Centre just outside Stow-on-the-Wold, where I had talked to Zara Phillips about her dreams and schemes for the Olympics, and the Queen's granddaughter had given me a great line, a line that I could picture on the back or, heck, even the front page of The Independent, publicising the interview.

I had asked Phillips whether it irritated her that, of the five members of the Olympic equestrian team, one which includes two massively accomplished riders in the form of William Fox-Pitt, aged 39, and 47-year-old Mary King, she drew 90 per cent, a conservative estimate, of public interest? "It does a bit," she said, then gave that radiant smile. "I can't help coming from a dodgy family."

There is sometimes a moment in this interviewing lark when the brain goes "kerrrching!", like a cash register opening. It can happen when you are struggling to find a rapport with your subject and then something they say, or something you say, warms the mood. Or it can happen when you are fretting that they have issued a string of banalities, offering little that will interest the reader, but then drop a pearl.

Monday's kerrrching! moment didn't quite fit either of those models, although I had been finding Phillips, contrary to everything I had been told about her, just a little imperious. For example, I had sought her opinion on the apparent paradox of such an intensely individual sport as eventing, its crux the relationship between horse and rider, unfolding in a team context. I got a slightly haughty look.

"Every team relies on individual performances, doesn't it?" she said.

"Yes," I said, "but if you talk about football or rugby..."

"I'm not talking about football or rugby," she interjected, a trifle sharply, perhaps suspecting me of an oblique reference to her boyfriend, the England centre Mike Tindall.

"No, but I am," I said, as sweetly as I could. "In those sports the team members interlink. The performance of one player can directly affect the performance of another. I just wondered how the team ethic works in eventing?"

Perhaps it was a naïve line of questioning, from someone who does not count eventing as one of his sporting passions, but still, her response was enlightening and the slight froideur diminished, to be further diluted a few moments later by the wonderful "dodgy family" line.

I had what I thought was a good interview, yet less than 24 hours later Phillips had withdrawn from the Olympics after a vet discovered a small but significant injury to her horse, Toytown. "We have double the risk of injury," she had said to me the previous day, comparing her prospects with those of other Olympic athletes. "In fact, more than double. Horses have four legs and the fitter they get the more likely they are to sustain some little niggle."

I don't know whether these were unwittingly prescient words, or whether even then she thought that something might be wrong with Toytown. I don't suppose she would have subjected herself to a press day, which she plainly and not unreasonably enjoys about as much as surgery without anaesthetic, had there been a genuine likelihood of her having to withdraw. Whatever, the abrupt announcement that she was pulling out of the Olympics highlighted yet again the vagaries of sport at the highest level, with two more of our leading medal hopes, the heptathlete Jessica Ennis and the marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, already seemingly consigned to the sidelines.

But is the word "vagaries" enough? Sometimes it seems more like the fiendish work of a malevolent sporting god, with a particular grudge against the flag of St George. After all, it's never our bit-part players who are ruled out by injury; it's Radcliffe and Phillips, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, Freddie Flintoff, Andy Murray, Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Cipriani.

On the other hand, maybe there is also a benevolent sporting god at work, plotting weird and rather wonderful denouements. It is quite possible that Phillips will now be replaced by Daisy Dick, who performed well at Badminton this year. And she is the daughter of Dave Dick, the jockey who rode ESB to victory in the 1956 Grand National, after Devon Loch, with Dick Francis on board, had so suddenly and astoundingly collapsed with the great race all but won. The point, of course, being that Devon Loch was owned by the late Queen Mother. Could it be that horsey misfortune will yet again hand an opportunity royal to a Dick?

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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