Stephen Bayley: First among losers

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The Independent Online

Not always a wholly satisfactory sight, the International British Sporting Hero. And how interesting that we have two of the more impressive examples centre stage simultaneously. It takes only a moment's enjoyable deconstruction to see what Tim Henman, so effortlessly falling into the abyss at Wimbledon last weekend, and David Coulthard, so hopefully competing in today's British Grand Prix, have in common.

"Happiness," Montaigne said, "is a singular incentive to mediocrity." Comfy middle-class nurture may have done it for Henman and Coulthard. The one child was indulged with tennis lessons, the other with go-karts. Not for them the struggle from a rat-infested ghetto with open sewers running through the bedroom and abusive parents drunk in an atmosphere of hostile neglect. No, instead, Tim and David were scrupulously well brought-up to be the spruce and correct athletes we admire today. They want for nothing – other, that is, than passion and authority. The hunger might be there, but you get a sense of "after you", of all that "I'm frightfully sorry, I appear to be leading, but it's just a temporary aberration, you can have it back soon". As ever, the very qualities of gentlemanly diffidence that make the British personality so agreeable are the same ones that make it so uncompetitive.

Of course, Henman and Coulthard have superb skills: they have both emphatically shown the technical ability to beat their most talented and determined and bloody-minded rivals. Except they don't. At least, not very often. Even when Henman is dominating a match, he looks fretful and uncertain. You feel he might, perhaps, prefer to be doing something else entirely. On the other hand, when Sampras and Agassi are being humiliated by a blindfolded teenager from a barrio who serves under-arm, they project an impression that this is against Nature, an affront to the proper order of things. Henman tends to look surprised when he wins a match. Sampras and Agassi are surprised if they don't.

In motor-racing, Michael Schumacher's dominance depends on psychology as much as it does on sporting ability or technology. As Ayrton Senna before him, his sense of authority is absolute and non-negotiable, something he artfully deploys with the acid skills of a Renaissance courtier when required to issue put-downs to pretenders. You can read his body language from the comportment of his car. It says, in summary, get out of my way or I will run into you. Coulthard, in contrast, might always be remembered for that day in Australia when, comfortably in the lead, he politely moved over for his team-mate when asked to do so.

Who knows what dire influence the suffocating gentility of the All England Club may have had on Henman? No one, I think, ever encouraged him with a stirring "Blast him past the baseline, Tim". Was Coulthard stimulated or depressed when his boss, while resolutely denying him priority in the team, said, "second's no good. Second is just first of the losers"?

Here we are, the British. The first of the losers: eager, it seems, to grab the convenience of defeat to save us from the efforts or obligations of victory. In the same week that Coulthard and Henman excite us with their talent, but tax us with their ambiguous frailties, the fate of two industrial champions demonstrates national character failings in the boardroom.

The national instinct is towards a dogged and uncomplaining capitulation. Marconi reads the market wrongly, loses most of its value and, as a remedy, sells off a valuable medical systems division cheaply. Psion, king of the palmtops, finds a sharp-elbowed competitor at the palace door and withdraws from a "difficult" (which is to say competitive) market. At this stage of industrial history, once you leave the game, you can't get back in. So, farewell then, palmtop computers and advanced medical systems, as well as Wimbledon men's singles and Formula One world champions.

Our sporting and business heroes have a lot in common: "half in love with easeful death". The British always play to win. Just as long as there's no competition.