UK's not OK

Robert Vahey

While watching television recently, I stumbled across the latest coverage of the Winter Olympic Games, specifically a rather bizarre sport by the name of curling. The object of this sport was not entirely clear, suffice to say England were competing against Canada, and were going down to ignominious defeat. Following coverage of the curling Sue Barker announced that the British skiers had got off to a poor start, and that seemed to be that. Apart from the odd Torvill and Dean, we have never really prospered at the Winter Games and have always regarded them with contempt and unimportance. Britain has never courted success at these Games, and the British have instead saved their passion for more worthy sports. Coverage of the Winter Olympics has after all only merited a few column inches in the newspapers and token coverage on our television screens.

It subsequently became clear, however, that the lack of media coverage the event has received is due not to the fact that the Games are unimportant, but rather to the fact that Britain is completely useless at them. It has also become evident that our failure at these games is not isolated, but is instead part of a wider context of sporting failure. This theory has been driven home in recent days by England’s defeat in Paris in the rugby union, as well as their defeat to a moribund West Indies side in the cricket. These defeats can be added to those in just about every other sport you can think of. There is tennis, where both Greg Rusedski and Tim Henman have settled back into their usual post Wimbledon mediocrity, and athletics, which is facing the prospect of bankruptcy due to lack of finance, and which yielded absolutely no gold medals from the last Olympics in Atlanta. It was in these Olympics that France, a country of similar size and means to Britain, fared so well.

Even the sporting success that we have had has been tempered with doubt, because it has been achieved with the aid of non-British facilities. Greg Rusedski learnt all he knew from a tennis academy in Canada, while Lennox Lewis emigrated to the same country whilst still a nipper. Half the English cricket team have been drawn from colonies around the world, including the much vaunted Hollioke brothers who both graduated from a cricket academy in Australia. Then there is Mike Catt, whose penalty kicking abilities have secured much of England’s recent success in rugby union. He originates from South Africa, where he was unable to get an extended run of games in the provincial teams over there. These so-called assimilated, or adopted, sportsmen have been welcomed by a British people apparently grateful for any kind of success at all.

We have always given excuses in this country for our sporting failures. Usually it is lack of finance and backing that has been blamed for uselessness. This is especially true in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, where our competing athletes have to find most of their costs on their own. They are not professional sports people and have to find remunerative jobs to support both themselves and their sport, while training in their spare time. They receive no government backing at all. This is true also of tennis, a sport which until recently enjoyed hardly any indoor facilities in this country. This had the effect of making tennis in this country a summer sport, meaning that our rising stars had to go elsewhere if they wanted to pursue it during the winter. It would thus seem that the sporting success we have had, has come despite our facilities instead of because of them.

However while it is certainly true that lack of facilities have hampered our sportsmen and sportswomen, it is probably not the only reason. Even in sports which enjoy ample finance and facilities, we have tasted failure. There seems to be a possible lack of courage which condemns the British sportsman to perpetual defeat. How else can we explain his constant penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and for converting hope into failure? In the rugby union for example, we had allowed ourselves to raise our hopes of success after a glorious summer during which we managed to defeat the South Africans in the tour over there, as well as beating Australia and drawing with New Zealand during the winter. Even in the cricket we had taken some positive elements from our ultimate defeat by the Australians in the test last summer and convinced ourselves that we were on the right track.

It would seem that we find the whole idea of victory disconcerting, and would rather lose instead. This phenomenon can possibly be explained by the psyche of the British public, who much prefer the immodesty of a loser, rather than the arrogance it takes to be a winner. This explains our disenchantment with the likes of Prince Naseem and Chris Eubank and our love of Eddie the Eagle Edwards. It is our instinct to build a winner up and then knock him down again which marks us apart from other nations who will tolerate any kind of behaviour if it brings success with it. It would seem that this idiosyncrasy has been transmitted to our sports stars.


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