There has been a gratifyingly enthusiastic response to my reflections here last week on our improving pronunciation of complicated sporting names, although I was taken to task by Mr Snowden of Nottingham, who reckoned that I chose a poor example in Martina Navratilova, a name with which Wimbledon umpires used to struggle 30 years ago. Apparently, by the letter of the strict Czech syllable stresses, we still get it wrong.
Anyway, I am particularly grateful to Mr Wiczkowski of Manchester, who emailed to say that his own favourite sporting name has always been that of the 1960 Olympic 3,000-metre steeplechase champion Zdzislaw Krzyszkowiak. "I have happy memories of rolling around the floor as a young lad while Norris McWhirter struggled with various forms of his name in those terrific internationals at White City," Mr Wiczkowski recalled. He also remembered, more recently, British football commentators messing up the name of the Polish defender Jacek Bak, evidently pronounced "bonk".
As Mr Wiczkowski rightly pointed out, it tends to be short names that present the biggest challenges to commentators these days. He was disappointed during the Winter Olympics to find the BBC's man copping out by referring to the German luger Fuchs as "Foosh", but that did at least remind him of the famous newspaper headline half a century ago about the polar explorer Vivian Fuchs, who had just announced another trip to Antarctica. The headline was "Dr Fuchs Off Again", a story reported elsewhere, even more ambiguously, as "Dr Vivian Fuchs For Antarctic".
Warming rather nicely to his theme, Mr Wiczkowski told me how impressed he had been with the BBC's Paul Dickenson in Vancouver, "sailing through the potentially very tricky [German ski jumper Andreas] Wank as he prepared to launch himself into space on the big hill". He felt confident, he added, that the estimable Steve Cram would handle the name of Russian sprinter Maria Bolikova just as expertly, should she compete in this weekend's World Indoor Athletics Championships.
Is it unacceptable to snigger ever so slightly at foreign names that have saucy connotations in English? I don't see why it should be – after all, even the irreproachably genteel Radio 4 newsreader Charlotte Green got the giggles over the name of the leader of the Papua New Guinean armed forces, General Jack Tuat, some years ago – so long as we don't mind being on the receiving end. I have it on good authority that "Crouch" sounds very like a rude word in Arabic, which could give the Algerian commentators no end of laughs during this summer's World Cup.
Hard days for knights of the convivial table
In many years of interviewing, my two greatest knights to remember, if you'll pardon the pun (and I don't blame you if you won't), will for ever be Sir Stirling Moss and Sir Peter O'Sullevan. Several times in the last decade I have had the privilege of sitting in their living rooms listening to a seemingly inexhaustible fund of riveting anecdotes, then heading at an improbably brisk canter across a London street to stand them lunch, in O'Sullevan's case at a chic little French restaurant where the burgundy flowed as easily as the conversation, until I realised that afternoon had all but given way to early evening, and I had missed no fewer than seven trains home.
I mention these two marvellous men because both have had a hard time of late. Last Saturday, 80-year-old Moss fell 30ft down a lift shaft at his Mayfair home, breaking both ankles, while O'Sullevan has been badly knocked by the death on New Year's Eve of Pat, his wife of 63 years. A London cabbie, always a useful source of news for the enquiring hack, told me the other day that Sir Peter has also been laid low by illness. Not much keeps him in the stalls, but reportedly he wasn't well enough to get out to celebrate his 92nd birthday last Wednesday.
I hope with all my heart that both knights will be up and running before the last of the snowdrops wilt, and that before too long I'll get to hear some new stories, or, better yet, the old ones again.
A quiet voice stands out to answer the call of the Kop
Football crowds are often and rightly excoriated for their collective vulgarity, or for the warped ugliness of their passion, so it was nice to be reminded on Wednesday that they are also great repositories of good-humoured wit. When David Beckham took the field as a second-half substitute for Milan against Manchester United, he was lustily cheered to the rafters by the Old Trafford faithful, a reception which manifestly moved him, yet his first touch, and most touches thereafter, were roundly, ironically booed.
I enjoyed that, although my favourite form of terraces humour will always be the lone voice, raised in sarcasm or exasperation. My favourite example I have shared before, but not for a while, so here goes again. It was at Anfield in the 1960s – when Liverpool fans had more to laugh at than they do now – and as usual Peter Thompson was patrolling the left touchline, but to the irritation of one man on the Kop, Liverpool were playing too narrowly. "Wing," he shouted crossly. "Wing! Wing! Wing! Wing!" There was a second's silence, then from elsewhere on the Kop came another man's weary voice, which I paraphrase slightly. "Will someone please answer that effing phone!"Reuse content