Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Success, failure and the problem with British sport

In the space of just a few days the England football team has been eliminated from the Football World Cup, the England Rugby team have endured a 3-0 whitewash by the All Blacks and the England (and Wales) cricket team have lost a test match to Sri Lanka that at one point looked impossible to lose.

In such circumstances, widespread navel-gazing, self pity and the fevered gnashing of teeth about the country's so-called sporting ineptitude inevitably follows. I haven't read the newspapers yet today, but no doubt there are several pessimistic 'state of the sporting nation' editorials or features in the works, if not published already.

This is a monotonous cycle that seems to repeat itself on a fairly regular basis, particularly when the England football team is eliminated from the World Cup or European Championships or, heaven forfend, fails to qualify in the first place. But I can't help feeling that - as depressing for some sections of the UK as this trio of sporting disappointments has been - we, as a nation, are invariably inclined towards over-reaction when it comes to sport.

Let's try and take the nervous energy and disappointments of the last few days out of the equation and instead look at some cold, hard, rational facts:

1. England are the only nation to have won both the Football and Rugby World Cups.

2. In the last four summer Olympic Games, Britain have come tenth, tenth, fourth and third in the medals table. Hell, even in the Winter Olympics we've been top 20 finishers in the last two stagings.

3. The reigning men's singles tennis champion at Wimbledon is British.

4. Two Britons have won the Tour de France in the last two years.

5. Carl Froch is British and one of the fiercest and impressive competitors in world sport.

By any standards, this is a more than decent ratio of sporting success for a country which ranks 22nd in the world by population. Indeed, I've often thought that one of the 'problems' with British sport is that, for various historic reasons, we participate at a high level in a far wider range of sports than most other countries. This lack of specialisation inevitably means that we come up a little short of our own lofty expectations in some sports such as football, cricket and rugby.

South Africa, with a population of around 11 million less than the UK, makes for an interesting comparison with Britain. The 'rainbow nation' is often cited as a sporting powerhouse, usually by its own inhabitants whose pride and confidence in their sporting achievements puts the more diffident British to shame. But is South Africa's sporting record actually any better than Britain's? In fact, I'd argue that it's considerably worse. Post-apartheid the country has failed to qualify for the football World Cup on two occasions, and on the three occasions they did qualify they failed to make it out of the group stages. Yes, the South African cricket team has ranked at number 1 in the world on a couple of occasions over the past decade, and has secured some great victories along the way, but the dominance enjoyed in the past by Australia or the West Indies has eluded them, as has the Cricket World Cup. In the final analysis their record isn't much better than the English cricket team's in recent years, with England having also topped the world rankings while failing to win the World Cup. Yes, two South African Rugby World Cup triumphs is an excellent return, but it's still only one more than England, and as for the Olympics, both summer and winter, the South African record is lamentable, picking up seven gold medals since their re-admission into global sporting competition, compared to Britain's 77 over the same period.

Yes, there are plenty of financial, social and cultural reasons why South Africa could never hope or aspire to compete at a high level in as many sports as Britain regularly does, however the point still stands: Britain is a far more powerful sporting nation than we give ourselves credit for. Furthermore, and this is where (finally! I hear you cry!), boxing comes in, I'd also argue that we are a country that doesn't always savour the sporting heroes we do have, particularly the pugilists among them.

Hamed, Lewis, Calzaghe and Froch are among the many British boxers in recent years who haven't received nearly as much acclaim or column inches as their achievements and successes demanded. Partly, of course, this is a problem of boxing's own making; since the 1990s the sport has been too eager to move to the television platforms (i.e. satellite) that provide the most instant cash and gratification, rather than opt for widespread terrestrial television exposure. However it's also a symptom of the way that political correctness, middle-class snobbery and squeamishness have gradually alienated boxing from the mainstream of British sport. How else can you explain the fact that Lennox Lewis, a  British sportsman of almost unparalleled excellence, brilliance and dedication, has never been knighted, while golfer Nick Faldo, patently his sporting inferior (and a monumental prat to boot), is allowed to parade around with the title of 'Sir Nick'? Or how about the fact that British cycling supremo Dave Brailsford received the ultimate gong from the Queen, while Rob McCracken, whose boxing team also topped their sport's medal table at London 2012, is only an MBE? Indeed, only one figure from boxing has ever been knighted, the iconic Sir Henry Cooper - this compares with nine figures connected with rugby and six from motor-racing who have received this honour. Hell, nine yachtsmen have even been knighted!

The mainstream bias against boxing and the sport's gradual disappearance from television channels the majority of the population can actually access are topics I've posted about already here and here, so I won't recite these well-worn complaints again now. Instead, the point I want to emphasise is that, sadly (particularly for our own self-esteem) the British seem to be a nation where the majority view sport in a 'glass-half-empty' sort of way. How else can you explain our disproportionate focus on our failures, at the expense of properly savouring our wonderful successes?

Coupled with this tendency is our puzzling love of gallant losers and underdogs, as opposed to serial winners. Why are we more inclined to root for Frank Bruno at the expense of Lennox Lewis? Or Jimmy White rather than Stephen Hendry? Truth be told, it's a trap I also fall into, perhaps because I see more of myself, more of my own frailties and weaknesses, in the likes of Frank and Jimmy, as opposed to the more remote and robotic likes of Lewis and Hendry. (The fact I am more comfortable using Lennox and Stephen's surnames, while chummily invoking the Christian names of Bruno and White says it all!)

Whether these are significant flaws or not, I'll leave you to decide. But the next time you pause to curse the ineptitude of a British sportsman or sports team, try to recall some of the glories from the recent past too - Lewis overcoming Holyfield and Tyson, Wiggins in the Yellow Jersey, Murray lifting Wimbledon, any number of London 2012 Gold Medal moments - and give thanks for the fact that actually, really, in reality, Britain really is quite good at sport.

N.B. I use the terms British, English, Scottish etc without any bias or agenda, but solely as a factual marker of which country / nation has been represented in each case. Hence Murray and Froch are British, but the England football, rugby teams etc are denoted as such. This seems to me the most sensible way to deal with the issue of national nomenclature.

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N.B. For the purposes of consistency, this series of articles uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.

Luke G. Williams


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