The most unsporting team at the Olympics

Nothing typifies our partisanship more than the BBC's coverage of the women's marathon

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so in conversation with Michael Johnson, the great American athlete who retired in 2001 because, having utterly dominated 200m and 400m running for over a decade, there were no challenges left.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so in conversation with Michael Johnson, the great American athlete who retired in 2001 because, having utterly dominated 200m and 400m running for over a decade, there were no challenges left.

I asked Johnson to name the people he considered to be the greatest Olympians of all time. He chose Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Nadia Comaneci and Mark Spitz, and then hesitated, thinking of a fifth. Maybe he was toying, immodestly but not unreasonably, with the idea of proposing himself. Anyway, I prompted him with the name of Steve Redgrave. He shook his head apologetically. "I know of him, but I don't know much about him," said Johnson of the man who was recently voted Britain's supreme sporting achiever of the past 100 years.

This got me thinking. We habitually poke fun at the Americans for their nuclear-powered introspection. We bandy about the apocryphal claim that only 10 per cent of them have passports - nobody seems to know the exact figure. We laugh at George W Bush for reportedly thinking that Canada and Mexico shared a border. And we think it a complete hoot that a baseball competition between North American teams should be called the World Series, although the reason for that, in fairness, is that it was originally sponsored by a newspaper called The World.

Whatever, Michael Johnson's selection of three compatriots in his list of four great Olympians, seemed to underline the American tendency to elevate their own achievements way above anyone else's. But are not the British just the same? Perhaps, in expecting Johnson to choose Redgrave, the blinkeredness was mine, not his.

Why should he get excited about coxless this and coxed that? We wouldn't, if it weren't for the fact that our boys are the best in the world. If our boys were better at lifting weights than they are at pulling oars, we'd know as much about the clean and jerk as we do about pairs, fours and eights.

In our own sweet and slightly less demonstrative way, we are just as partisan as anyone else. Nothing typified this more than the BBC's coverage of the women's marathon on Sunday, in which scarcely any attention was paid to the Japanese winner. For the BBC, the infinitely bigger story was Paula Radcliffe's failure to win, although I am wary about using the word failure; one of the viewers' e-mails later read out by presenter Clare Balding suggested that anyone who described Paula as a failure "should be shot". That seemed a bit harsh to me. A moderate beating would surely suffice.

Obviously, it would be disingenuous to assert that too much was made of Radcliffe's withdrawal at the expense of Miss Noguchi's victory. Radcliffe was the world record-holder and favourite. She had trained, with extraordinary single-mindedness, with the intention of adding an Olympic title to an already remarkable portfolio of success. She then pulled up at the side of the road in a state of considerable distress. Even a neutral observer could see that hers, not Miss Noguchi's, was the compelling human-interest story.

And yet the BBC's team overdid it. One of its commentators actually dared to say that this wasn't a race to determine the best female marathon runner, merely the best female marathon runner on a hot day in Athens. Oh yeah? Significantly, the comment was made after Radcliffe's withdrawal, not before. If Paula had won, the notion would not have occurred.

Generally speaking, I'm all for a spot of partisanship. It irritates me during international football competitions when some folk get piously indignant about John Motson or whoever referring to England as "we". Why shouldn't an English commentator root for England? He's only articulating what the vast majority of viewers are feeling. We are still entitled to issue patronising sniggers in the direction of the over-excited South American broadcasters who lose control of their vocal chords, and very possibly their bladders, the moment a ball hits the back of a net .

Besides, the Olympics demand partisanship. There's something wonderful about millions of people, be they British or Latvian or Paraguayan, fixating on a relatively minor sport because they happen to share a birthplace with the prospective gold-medallist. Sometimes we can even claim a stake in those gold medals. Matthew Pinsent, James Cracknell, Ed Coode and Steve Williams would not have won the coxless fours final on Saturday without the financial backing of the lottery and many of us, by buying losing lottery tickets, have contributed to Camelot's financial muscle. So never mind that most of us would make a Lycra suit bulge in the wrong places, their victory was also ours.

Excessive partisanship, however, is not a good thing. It distorts the spectacle. It diminishes enjoyment of sporting excellence. Still, Britain's Olympians have won most of the medals they are going to get in Athens, so the BBC should now be able to get the balance right.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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