On Sunday, in Kent, England, a 26-year-old man from Kent, Ohio, was anointed, in the archaic yet evocative language of the Royal and Ancient Gold Club of St Andrews, as the champion golfer of the year. Four days earlier Ben Curtis had been a virtual unknown, a 750-1 shot to win the Open Championship, and apparently lousy odds at that. But there he was, on Sunday, being ushered to the microphone by a portly bigwig from the R&A and invited to share some thoughts with the watching millions.
Tears were inevitable. As collected as the young man had been up to that point, everyone knew that a blub was on the cards. And sure enough, as soon as he mentioned his fiancée and his family, there duly came the telltale catch in the throat, the awkward silence, the step away from the microphone, the dabbing of the eyes, and finally the strenuous regathering of composure.
There is nothing like sport to get men blubbing, and nothing like blubbing to turn sportsmen into heroes. At Wimbledon, the men's singles champion, Roger Federer, sobbed his oddly Quentin Tarantino-like head off, bless him, and stole a million hearts. Remember little Garry Herbert, his face contorted as he received his coxed-pairs gold medal at the 1992 Olympic Games?
And of course, when Paul Gascoigne wept during the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup, he metamorphosed on the spot from wonderful footballer to enduring icon. As a significant side-effect, hundreds of thousands of football fans emerged from that World Cup knowing the meaning of the word "lachrymose". They also, incidentally, learned that "Nessun Dorma" was not, after all, a Japanese brand of camper van. So those who say that sport cannot teach us anything are woefully wrong.
It was Gazza in 1990 who made us realise what a heady brew could be concocted from sport and tears. After all, the essence of sport is control, be it of oneself or a ball, and at its best physical control is dazzling to watch. But it is not often profoundly moving. If, however, it is followed by a display of emotional vulnerability, if we are moved as well as dazzled, then we really have had our money's worth.
Especially if the tears are male tears. If only for the photographers, every male tear is worth at least five female tears, perhaps because in sport women tend to cry, far more sensibly, as a result of disappointment and despair. Take the tennis player Jana Novotna, sobbing on the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent after losing a Wimbledon singles final, or the runner Mary Decker, lying injured beside the track in the 3,000 metres final at the 1984 Olympics. The blokes, by contrast, break down mainly when they win.
Where has it come from, this business of men crying in public? It is sometimes held to be one of the credentials of New Man-dom, not that belching, farting, wife-battering Gazza has ever been much of a New Man. In his case, as in the case of Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, who virtually ended up as a puddle of salt water after winning the World Snooker Championship, it is more to do with emotional under-development. In other words, they are men on the outside, yet little boys within.
But that doesn't explain the phenomenon as it applies to the rest of us. Last week I went with my wife and children to see Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music, and as always my tear ducts were devastatingly pierced by the scene in which Christopher Plummer melts on hearing his children singing. I allowed myself a self-conscious, sidelong glance.
My wife and kids were happily singing along; I was a wreck.
There is no doubt that lachrymosity in men is a relatively new thing. Go into any primary school and if you find a tear-stained parquet floor, you'll know there's been an end-of-term concert the day before. And that lots of dads turned up. Yet when I was at primary school, back when study of the Plantagenet kings counted as current affairs, one's father did not turn up at concerts. And if he did, he most certainly did not cry. These days, the only dads trying to keep their emotions in check are the ones holding the camcorders.
Of course, there are examples from the monochrome era of chaps crying. The waspish television presenter Gilbert Harding, on the interview programme Face to Face, sensationally had a little weep. That it caused such a stir shows how extraordinary it was. An Englishman's upper lip was simply not expected to quiver. Nor, even, was Johnny Foreigner's. Rod Laver never cried on winning Wimbledon. Moreover, it seems significant that the Open Championship was won, 50 years ago this summer, by another American giving it his first shot. Admittedly it was Ben Hogan, already the finest player of his time, but did he sob in public? He would rather have vomited.
Now that I think about it, I reckon it's largely to do with childbirth. Our fathers, and their fathers, did not attend the births of their children. But these days it is not only commonplace but expected, New Man or not. And of course there is nothing more certain to bring on the tears. Neither Ben Curtis nor Roger Federer are fathers yet, but in a way that's irrelevant. They are part of the waterworks generation. Emotional restraint be damned ... but not dammed. Let it flow, say I.Reuse content