Mike Rowbottom: Sporting shows of emotion let us squirm with vicarious relish

Saturday 17 January 2004 01:00

Am i a bad person, I wonder? The thought occurred to me this week as I watched a large, suited primary school teacher from Liverpool flailing into a fracas with an equally large, Day-Glo-clad steward next to the dug-outs at Colchester United Football Club.

The man in the suit, Accrington Stanley's manager, John Coleman, had been attempting to question the referee at half-time in his side's FA Cup replay, clearly indignant over two decisions which had cost his men a goal and then a penalty. There was, of course, no point at all in Coleman's quest. There never is in these cases.

"Ref! That goal was never offside."

"What makes you say that?"

"It was f***ing obvious to everyone but you."

"Oh. Do you really think so?"

"Yeah ... and we should have had a penalty just after."

"I see ... Well, I suppose you could be right."

"So do we get the goal?"

"Yes, yes ... perhaps you should. You're sure it was OK?"

"Of course I'm f***ing sure."

"OK. Let's call it one-all then."

"What about the penalty?"

"Now come on. I think I've been more than reasonable."

"A nailed-on pen. The goalie never even got close to the ball."

"I thought he got a touch."

"No way."

"Oh very well. I'm convinced. When you come back out, you're 2-1 up."

No. These things don't happen. But I have to confess that I took much pleasure in witnessing this midweek detonation, not least for the mental picture of the following day's experience as Mr Coleman attended school assembly.

"Mr Coleman?"

"Yes, David?"

"You know you were talking to us about not hitting in the playground..."

Let's be honest here. When press or spectators look back on that game in years to come, the image of Coleman wading in will remain gloriously clear. It was gripping entertainment for all.

Over the years, as the recollections of sporting performances fade, we - alright, let's not rope you into it - I can recall moments of outrage, awkwardness and embarrassment with extreme clarity. And relish.

I cherish the memory of the British press sweepstake before the 1993 World Athletics Championships on how many times the multiple Olympic champion Carl Lewis would use the word "focus" in his official pre-event appearance. As the total rose - five, 10, 15 - it was marked by exclamations of rising excitement, or disappointment, from different sections of the media, until, with the number reaching close to 30, there was a winner. Afterwards, the entertainment was shared with Lewis's manager, Joe Douglas. An awkward moment of silence ensued before the petite Californian exclaimed: "You guys, you kill me!"

At last summer's World Athletics Championships it was very, very wrong and stupid of Jon Drummond to lie spread-eagled on the track in protest at being disqualified from the 100 metres for a false start. But even though the unscheduled event came horribly close to deadline for watching scribes, there was a surge of excitement as we witnessed something spontaneous occurring.

Drummond was duly drummed out, and later made the requisite apology for behaving badly. But, in a world of sport where emotion is too often synthesised, or suppressed, there was no mistaking the genuineness of the American's response. He went right out on a wildly swaying limb and you couldn't help but love the spectacle.

Another United States sprinter, Dennis Mitchell, has made his own contribution in the field of incorrectness. He may best be remembered for offering one of the most inspired excuses for a doping offence, namely that his testosterone levels had been raised by the activities of the previous night, when he had drunk a lot of beer and then made love to his wife seven times (she deserved it, apparently, because it was her birthday).

But before he was banned, Mitchell provided regular entertainment as he pranced and jived and eyeballed his way to the start line at a series of Grand Prix meetings, presumably in an effort to put off his opponents.

Mitchell habitually garbed himself in a Day-Glo-green vest - taking on the unofficial name of The Green Machine. And with pleasing regularity after his start line ballyhoo, he crossed the line at the other end of the track behind a good number of his rivals. I enjoyed this regular fall from lack of grace before the Green Machine became the Has Been Machine.

But opportunities for squirming, unprogrammed enjoyment arrive so often. Take yesterday's event at the Royal Opera House to mark London's bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. As Tony Blair concluded his speech, and Barbara Cassani, the American who chairs the bid, passed him to continue her address from the podium, she was overheard to administer a brief command to the PM: "Just stay there." Which the man with no reverse gear obediently did. Topping sport.

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