One of the many ways in which we English exert our feelings of cultural superiority is to air that despicably condescending yet oddly enjoyable old line about it being impossible to name more than three famous Belgians. I have heard it said of the Swiss, too, and heard the laughter when someone suggested the celebrated chocolatier, Toby Le Rone.
So there is both irony and paradox in the fact that the Wimbledon tennis championships, of all uniquely English institutions, has scuppered this very English practice once and for all. Not only did Belgium produce two of the semi-finalists in the women's singles, in Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters, but Switzerland has produced the men's champion, Roger Federer.
No longer do we have to hark back to the cyclist Eddy Merckx in the hunt for renowned Belgians, or even further in search of illustrious Swiss to the 16th-century theologian Huldreich Zwingli (famous, if not for his rejection of transubstantiation, then at least for being the last entry in most biographical dictionaries, except those which include the Russian physicist Vladimir Zworykin). And if in the bars of Bruges and Basel there are people chuckling as they try in vain to think of three decent English tennis players, then we have to admit to being fair game.
For Wimbledon also confirmed that English tennis is precariously wired to a life-support machine. For years we have clung limpet-like to the belief that Tim Henman might, in the event of Pete Sampras and Pat Rafter retiring, Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt losing to someone else, Goran Ivanisevic sustaining a pre-tournament injury and Jupiter being in reasonable alignment with Mars, still be clenching his fist on finals day.
This year's tournament yielded all those eventualities but one. Henman lost emphatically to Grosjean who lost emphatically to Phillipoussis who lost emphatically to Federer, and the truth at long last began to dawn, not that Henman has under-achieved at Wimbledon these past eight years, but that he has over-achieved. He is the best of British and a fine player, but he has no more chance of lifting the title than I have of lifting a combine harvester. The four-letter words with which he greeted a questionable umpiring decision was perhaps the moment at which he finally recognised this.
Federer, in the meantime, kept a lid on a temper which used to be explosive, and did not let his emotions bubble over until he won, when he wept, bless his Nike cotton socks, like a baby. This was another assault on our preconceptions about the metronomic Swiss. They don't do fame and they don't do emotion, we always thought, and now we find that they do both. Whatever next, a German with a sense of humour? Yes, actually. Because Boris Becker in the BBC commentary box and on the nightly highlights programme was wryness personified.
There are folk who can't stand Wimbledon, who think it a fortnight-long bad joke celebrating the worst of Middle England - the embarrassing Henmaniacs bedecked in their Union Jacks, the self-important stewards in Panama hats, the genteel Home Counties matrons with nothing better to do than to watch tennis and eat strawberries - but actually the joke is on them, because Wimbledon, all of a sudden, is confounding more stereotypes than it reinforces.
Sport should confound stereotypes. It should challenge prejudice and preconception. And eventually it will wear them down, because they become unsustainable. It has been a long, painful process, but even racists at football matches have begun to understand how preposterous it is for them to chant abuse at the three black players on the opposition team, when they have five on their own. So the abuse stops, and eventually, perhaps, also the hate.
On the other hand, there are times when sport confounds the happiest of expectations. Last week, regrettably eclipsed by Wimbledon, there unfolded on Guernsey the Island Games, a mini-Olympics featuring teams from islands all over the world, from Aland (an archipelago province of Finland) to Ynys Mon (better known as Anglesey). This biennial event began on the Isle of Man in 1985 and is styled "the friendly games", but last week, in a football match between Rhodes and Guernsey, five players - all from Rhodes - were sent off for violent conduct. The match was then abandoned by the female referee, Wendy Toms.
"Women don't understand men," lamented Stavros Kalafatis, the Rhodes physiotherapist. "We should never have agreed to play with a woman refereeing." So much for the friendly games. But then maybe that's the island mentality for you. Volatile, volcanic. Whereas to keep your emotions in check at least until the contest is over, it helps to come from a peaceful, land-locked country such as Switzerland. Or maybe we should just boot the whole business of national stereotypes into touch.Reuse content