Sport has real value in our lives: it separates the genuine from the phoney

As the Olympics draws to a close, the words of Hugh McIlvanney, one of Britain's greatest sports writers, can help us reflect on what it all means
  • @Simon_Kelner

In years to come, this will surely be regarded as the bluest of Mondays, the day when a golden summer officially came to an end, and when impossible dreams were replaced by insoluble problems, and when the glorious distraction of sporting achievement made way for the rather more serious matters of economics and politics.

We will all have our favourite moments from this summer, whether they be individual moments of triumph that illuminated a bigger picture – the victories of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis that portrayed Britain as a wonderful, polyglot nation – or simple, heart-warming stories that conveyed nothing more than the resilience of the human spirit – Dave Weir or Johnnie Peacock, for example, who made a nation look beyond what the disabled are incapable of doing to see what they are capable of achieving.

Above all, this was the summer that sport was seen by most of the population as something that can entertain, excite, and also elevate. It didn't matter whether sprinters were in wheelchairs or on their own two feet, we roared them on, lost in the thrill of the race, and the simplicity of the contest. There remains a purity about the test of physical ability that has captivated us all summer, and, to an extent, has made us better people.

At the weekend, I was at a party to celebrate a remarkable landmark for one of Britain's greatest-ever sports writers, Hugh McIlvanney. He came to what was then Fleet Street 50 years ago, and has since reported from home and abroad on every event there is.

He spoke with eloquence about the value of sport in our lives. "It separates the genuine from the phoney," he said. Sports writing should always recognise this essential virtue, in direct antithesis of advice McIlvanney was given many years ago by a man who was venerated for the vividness of his writing. "The secret is to think up a tale," the young McIlvanney was told, "then gently drag the facts towards it."

That, of course, was in the days when so little sport was televised. Now, every aspect of a contest is laid bare by television, and the facts, you may say, speak for themselves. It is the interpretation and contextualisation of the raw details where the value of the sportswriter lies, and few have done this better than McIlvanney.

It is the interpretation of the raw details where the value of the sportswriter lies, and few have done this better than McIlvanney

His reporting from ringside in 1980 when the young Welsh boxer Johnny Owen suffered fatal injuries in fighting for the world title remains one of the best examples of the sportswriter's art.

Of the shy and courageous 20-year-old, McIlvanney wrote: "Outside the ring he was an inaudible and almost invisible personality. Inside, he become astonishingly positive and self-assured... It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language."

Sport, with its triumphs and, yes, its tragedies, has long been a backdrop for many of us. This will be remembered as the summer when it forced itself into the foreground for everyone.