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James Lawton: Olympian achievements brought down to earth in fast-track honours system

Chris Hoy and Co are worthy of recognition but knighting him now smacks of a government in pursuit of a feel-good factor

Wednesday 31 December 2008 01:00 GMT

When George Cohen was asked if he would be averse to accepting an MBE – the lowest rung of the honours system – 34 years after contributing to the supreme achievement of the national sport, the World Cup victory of 1966, he said, "No, not at all, thank you very much."

He remained gracious enough when the Downing Street official said how difficult it had been to find him. Nobby Stiles had been good enough to pass on his phone number.

He was similarly restrained when he stepped up to receive his bauble, along with Stiles, the late Alan Ball, Roger Hunt and Ray Wilson, and the Queen said, "It's been a long time." Cohen contented himself with the thought, "Yes, Ma'am, and quite a lot has changed."

Eight years on, quite how much was evident when Chris Hoy was yesterday handed a knighthood just slightly more than four months after his brilliant success in the Beijing Olympics.

But what kind of change do we really have here? Is it simply a move towards prompt and proper recognition of the kind of high achievement which the Scotsman represents so superbly? Or is it political opportunism enough to make you retch? Is it populism on a flood tide?

It would be extremely pretty to believe in the first possibility – and as welcome as the exhilaration which Hoy and his fellow Olympians brought to the nation.

But then why is there a stirring of unease? Maybe it is because we have to suspect that, in its pursuit of a feel-good factor, after its discovery that sport is important to the mood of the nation and a hugely valuable contribution to the enjoyment and the health of young people, the Government is not so much responding to the reality of achievement that would have been remarkable at any time, but working an agenda.

The agenda, of course, fell into place like political ABC when London landed the Olympics, and the politicians got to bask in the reflected glory, despite a record of investment in sport which, in real terms, would have shamed a banana republic.

Sport works now. It's a winner, not like the Ferrari boys of the Thatcher age who took so long to burn themselves out – so, why not, throw everything you can in its direction, and what comes easier, or makes such instant headlines, than a slew of medals and gongs and ribbons?

This is not to begrudge recognition of great deeds. It is to draw a line between the noting, and grading, of such performances – and a Pavlovian response to any success that comes along, which for some is the current situation made grotesque by the iniquities of the past.

Characteristically, Hoy handled the news – which was widely expected – with his usual mixture of easy charm and judicious modesty. Indeed, his point that there was more than a hint of madness in being knighted for riding a bike was a remark made deftly on the day that his mother, Carol, joined the vast list of MBEs, along with the boys of '66, and massed ranks of lollipop ladies, school janitors and other worthy members of society, for outstanding work in sleep-related illnesses.

Yet even Hoy's public-relations skills, and a competitive nature which is self-evident with even the most cursory examination of his sports career and his life, are not quite enough to dispel the feeling that he may have been exalted rather too quickly above his peers.

Hoy has set himself fresh challenges and, at the age of 32, is plainly equipped to win new battles against the world and any inclination of his own to sit back and luxuriate in past success.

Of course, he is due great recognition and if his knighthood seems premature even to some of his warmest admirers that reaction should not be underpinned excessively by the shameful neglect of the great achievers of the past.

Yes, it is bizarre that Nick Faldo, by common consent, the greatest, if not the most embraceable, of British golfers, has received no greater favour than the MBE. It is odd, too, to remember all those years we waited in vain for Bobby Moore, the least assuming of great sportsmen, to be raised to the level his achievement warranted. Or that Jimmy Greaves, one of the most gifted of all his compatriots, was never seen as the appropriate object of a Downing Street search for men and women who had brought excitement and uplift to the life of the nation. But this is just to scrape the surface of injustice and whim and absurdity that have disfigured the honours system as it has been applied so haphazardly to sport down the years and none of it slights the rock-hard achievements of Sir Chris Hoy.

He is a man easy to honour. The worry is that at this time it has been perhaps a little too easy, a bit too much like the ticking of an agenda.

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