Terence Blacker: The Olympics could transform Britain

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The Independent Online

As a racist chant, "You are just pizza delivery boys" does not rate particularly high on the offensiveness scale. It is doubtful Fifa will be studying what the home fans were singing during the World Cup semi-final between Germany and Italy. Nor will there be any police investigation into events in the centre of Dortmund which followed Germany's defeat.

Angered by the joy shown by Italians at a trattoria, German fans surrounded the place and began chanting "No more pizza!" The Italians responded by handing out slices to everyone and the evening ended with the rival supporters emotionally exchanging national flags. Can you imagine the same scene here, if the pizza-boys had just dumped the home team out of the competition, and their fans had the gall, to rub our faces in it by being openly happy? To my profound astonishment, I find that I can.

Events over the past few days have shown that, for all the hysteria, nationalism and incipient threat of violence that attends it, sport has the power to change the national mood, and not simply through victory or defeat. The tendency to take a negative view of sporting competition most recently expressed by the European Tour Operators Association, is beginning to seem rather out of date. The gloomy tour operators looked into the effect of recent Olympic Games on the tourist economy of the countries where they were held and concluded that there is such a thing as a "sports tourist". Like other specialist travellers - medical tourists, sex tourists - the sports tourist is unhelpfully focussed on his or her area of interest. In all recent games, say the tour operators, visits to the Olympic city's theme parks, galleries and other attractions have declined. Sports tourists were "akin to business visitors attending a convention".

This observation is peculiarly ill-timed. Events over the past few weeks in Germany have offered a reminder that those who enjoy sport are not necessarily insular or boorish. Specifically, the rage of disappointment that many of us believed would boil over when the national team was defeated has not materialised.

On the whole, visiting English fans behaved well. Our footballers, apart from the odd sneaky kick to the balls of an opposing player which can happen to anyone in the heat of battle, competed with a sense of fairness and lack of moaning and faking that put them well above an admittedly low international average. As a nation, enduring the hurt of unfulfilled potential, the English have acquitted themselves with a certain weary dignity.

Mounting the Olympics will be stressful, particularly with a mighty army of lugubrious naysayers chuntering away pointlessly on the sidelines, but, done successfully, it will do much to change what is left of a mood of angry national alienation to one that is more cheerful and grown-up, less hostile to anyone who happens to be foreign.

In this context, Tony Blair's idea that Britain should be allowed to field an Olympic football team, with players from every country in the UK, is worthwhile. The animosity between the home nations, likely to increase in the short term as a Scotsman grinds his dreary way towards 10 Downing Street, would be revealed, through sport, to be utterly futile and tedious.

Suddenly we have discovered there is more to a great sporting occasion than winning, that it can raise spirits and marginalise prejudice. The London Olympics, prepared in that spirit, could transform the nation.

Zidane's puff for freedom

Bald, ageing, unbeautiful and yet mesmerisingly brilliant, Zinedine Zidane is a sports hero like no other. In footballing terms he is a pensioner but, for game after game this summer, the French captain has run rings around the pouting pretty boys and dying-swan divas of other teams, before sending them, blubbing, back to their dressing-rooms.

Now this great man has won more sporting glory by apparently being photographed, shortly before the semi-final against Portugal, puffing on a cigarette. Could there be a connection between Zizou's determination to be his own man off the pitch and the grace he shows on it? Lovers of freedom and individualism will be cheering on this marvellous old man on Sunday.

* Those who have suggested that members of the judiciary are occasionally out of touch with everyday reality might usefully study events which took place at Liverpool Crown Court this week.

Daniel Hardman, 21, was in the dock, having pleaded guilty to throwing a glass at a barman and subsequently intimidating a witness. On being sentenced by Judge Denis Clark to six months in prison, Hardman burst into tears. The judge was so moved that he changed the sentence to 200 hours of community service.

The crying man is a symbol of the moment, representing emotional strength, humility, and basic human decency. Although the defendant later admitted he was crying for himself, not his victim, this technique of spontaneous sobbing, which perhaps should be called the Hardman Manoeuvre, has always been a useful defence in tricky situations at home or in the office. Now it can work in court, too.

terblacker@aol.com

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