As tennis players make their way on to Centre Court at Wimbledon, they see, carved above them, the lines from Kipling's poem If: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same".
Who are they kidding? Of all the things that made Roger Federer the greatest tennis player of his generation, I'm pretty sure that one of them was not an ability to treat victory and defeat with equanimity. It may be a sentiment that works well in the park, but what assuredly distinguishes champions from the common herd is the drive to countenance nothing but victory, or, as one of the great figures of American football once said: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." For the rest of us, who are not top-class sportsmen or women, a sense of perspective à la Kipling is, of course, necessary just to remain sane.
Sport has a terrible power to inflict pain. Or, indeed, bring joy, which, as I woke yesterday morning in a euphoric haze that shows now sign of abating, is something I can vouch for. The reason for my beatific state was Manchester City's 6-1 triumph over Manchester United, a result so extraordinary that I didn't even believe it when I heard it on the Radio 4 news bulletin. (I'll tell you how exceptional this is: on the front of the Financial Times yesterday, there was a picture not of Nicolas Sarkozy or Jean-Claude Trichet, but of Mario Balotelli, the City striker!)
We supporters of Manchester City have had our fair share of the twin impostors down the years, so we're determined to treat this particular one like the real thing. Surely sport is at its best, and at its most relevant, when it really matters.
That's why productivity will have gone up in New Zealand yesterday as an entire country basks in the glow of winning rugby's World Cup. And why, as we limber up for the London Olympics next year, we as a nation will be implored to get behind our athletes.
We will obviously take pride in the delivery of the Games on time and on budget – when was the last time the build-up to an Olympics didn't take place against a backdrop of stories about the stadium not being ready on time? – but it will count for much less if we fail to bag a decent collection of gold medals.
And one thing's for sure: coaches won't be preaching Kipling to their charges. More likely they'll be trying to get them to emulate the great athlete Michael Johnson who, on Desert Island Discs the other week, revealed the record he always listened to before he competed. It was called "Me Against the World".Reuse content