Tour de France proves a real tour de force

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The Independent Online
I have a grown-up daughter living in London - in fact, she is so grown-up that she has recently become pregnant and is going to have a baby by the end of the year. My son-in-law tells me that the pregnancy fad that has hit her is not the sudden fondness for eating liquorice or nibbling bits of anthracite that is said to hit mothers to be, but an enormous craze for watching the Tour de France reports on Channel 4.

This I find startling. Most women are too sensible to watch sport, anyway, but my daughter is the one woman in the world in whose education I had a close part, and I was always very careful to send her to schools where they didn't play rugby or have more sports trophies than poetry prizes. If, at home, an important match came on TV which I felt I had to watch, I would be careful to usher her out of the room first and send her off for a long walk. It didn't matter if I watched it because I was beyond curing, but I wanted to save her. It isn't just sports watching that is bad for you, it is passive sports watching as well. And now she is addicted to daily Channel 4 Tour de France reports !

Well, if she has to be temporarily addicted to any sport, I would prefer it to be a sport on Channel 4. All the sports ever broadcast on Channel 4 are spectacular, not just in their skill and endurance but in their incomprehensibility and poetic impenetrability. I was once taken to an Urdu poetry recital in Hyderabad, in India, and the baffled enjoyment I got from that evening is very like the baffled enjoyment I get from Channel 4 sport. Sometimes it features one of those games which have survived in Ireland, in which people cannot make up their mind whether to hit the ball with a stick or run with it, so they kick it instead - the game is called shinty, and if it is not called that it is called hurling, or maybe Gaelic football, and I could watch it for hours. There always comes a point near the end when a breathless commentator says: "Well, Limerick have got an awful lot to do if they are to catch Sligo now,"and I realise, with a thrill of excitement, that I have no idea which team is Limerick or which is Sligo, thus adding a new element of thrilling obscurity to the game.

Sometimes it is an Indian game, called something like kabbadi, in which people have to touch each other. Sometimes it is a game called Australian Rules football, in which the players have to be suntanned and wear only their underwear. But as long as it is a game in which you are left to your own devices to work out what is going on, it is fun. (American football is different from all other Channel 4 games, though. Not only is it an extremely tiresome game, being a cross between chess and trench warfare, with the best bits of both excluded, but the commentators are determined to stuff you with the most tiresome statistics known to man. You would have to be pregnant with triplets to work up a sudden taste for American football. )

So I can understand my daughter's infatuation with the Tour de France. In fact, as it is a good Channel 4 sport, I have had it myself. I have found myself transfixed as the kilometre signs flash by, as the thin muscular bottoms of the riders bob up and down through cheering little French villages, as the camera viewpoint shifts giddily from just behind the leader's left ear to a high helicopter shot of the entire Tour streaming along a main road like ants heading towards a picnic. I have found myself wondering where the camera is, realising it is on a motorbike just in front of the breakaway squad, seeing, with great excitement, the shadow of the cameraman leaning right off his vehicle.

What I have never done is have the faintest idea what is going on, who is really winning, or what a squad does when it sets out to support its star rider. I don't think I have ever wanted to know. Because it is only when you do know what is going on in a sport that you realise how dreary most of it is. I understand what is going on in football and I think a lot of Euro 96 was pretty dreary. And I know what is going on in rugby, or at least enough to know I never ever want to see England play rugby again: I never want to see the England scrum kill the game again. I never want to see a load of supposedly fast and intelligent three-quarters kick for touch or forget to pass the ball when tackled again.

In brief, I think the news that England has been excluded from the Five Nations competition is the best news since, well ... since I heard that my daughter was pregnant.

Tomorrow: we tell you which drugs you need to get you through watching the Olympic Games.

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