We’re heading into end-of-the-year “gong” season again, and for sports fans that means BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2013 – helpfully shortened to SPOTY. On Sunday 15 December our finest athletes, coaches and managers will brave a barrage of BBC roving microphones and Gary Lineker’s aftershave to review a year of sporting triumphs and near-misses.
Though this is the 60th anniversary of the SPOTY awards, the show’s diamond jubilee will be missing a bit of sparkle. Sue Barker, for so long the jewel in the crown of BBC sports coverage, has opted to “downsize” her commitments and retire from her SPOTY duties after 19 glorious years. (Don’t worry, tennis fans, she’ll still be anchoring the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage and flirting with Tim Henman.) Her place will be taken by glamorous Gabby Logan, whose legs will share the limelight with Gary Lineker and Clare Balding.
After the gold rush of London 2012 there was a risk that 2013 might have fallen as flat as the much-touted Olympic legacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The England cricket team’s summer Ashes campaign may have been unconvincing, but no one could doubt the quality of Ian Bell’s batting or fast bowler Stuart Broad’s unerring knack of getting up Aussie noses. Justin Rose triumphed at the US Open in June; Chris Froome made it back-to-back wins for Sky at the Tour de France in July.
The crowning glory in another Great British Summer of Sport was Andy Murray becoming the first British male to win a Wimbledon singles title since Fred Perry in 1936. If that doesn’t win him the SPOTY award for 2013, I’ll eat a haggis.
I’ll be giving SPOTY 2013 a miss, for reasons I outlined last year. Instead, I’d like to pay tribute to the sports personalities whose loose-lipped, gaffe-prone, foot-in-mouth antics have kept the headline writers busy over the past 12 months.
Pulling no punches – David Warner
In June 2013 pugnacious Aussie opening batsmen David Warner narrowly escaped being sent home from the Ashes tour, after attempting to punch England’s Joe Root during a bar-room altercation over an improvised wig. Much hilarity centred on the fact that Warner only “caught the outside edge” of the baby-faced Root’s face. Five months later Warner was on target as he delivered the coup de grâce to Jonathan Trott, describing the England batsman’s second innings dismissal in the Brisbane Test as “pretty poor and weak”. He wasn’t being malicious – just honest – but Warner didn’t know that Trott’s batting was crippled by a stress-related condition. Trott flew home; Warner got beaten up in the press by various Aussie legends and England captain Alistair Cook.
Ernests Gulbis – no more Mr Nice Guy
Latvian tennis player Ernests Gulbis has a name that looks like a typo and a penchant for shooting his mouth off. He made headlines during the French Open in May, by condemning the world’s leading stars – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray – for their boring post-match interviews. He does have a point – these encounters between the press and the “Big Four” are masterclasses in the art of saying nothing controversial let alone confrontational. On the other hand, tennis careers are measured in trophies not bons mots. As this compilation shows, Gulbis (“I never practise that much”) is a top exponent of self-deprecating humour, but he’ll never win a Slam.
Sir Alex Ferguson wields a blow torch
In case you hadn’t heard, Sir Alex Ferguson (aka “SAF”) retired as Manchester United manager after steering the club to a 20th league title in April 2013. Fergie may have hung up his “hairdryer” for good, but he returned to put the boot into his former players with the literary equivalent of a blow torch. “David Beckham will feel like he has been ambushed, mugged and beaten up” claimed one newspaper as Fergie’s imaginatively titled Alex Ferguson My Autobiography lambasted Becks for putting celebrity haircuts before his footballing career.
Why 2013 sucked for Sir Bradley Wiggins
After the glory and adulation of 2012, cycling’s “modfather” Wiggo fell off his pedestal in 2013, losing his titles and his dignity. From his premature exit at the Giro d’Italia in May, to his ignominious retirement at the World Championships in September, Sir Brad was generally out of form and out of luck. As his feud with team-mate Chris Froome rumbled on, Wiggo put the finishing touches on his Annus Horribilis with an ill-timed sex quip at a Barnardo’s charity event. The Firecracker Ball was in aid of victims of child abuse but no one was feeling charitable about the cyclist’s lewd comment to the auctioneer. Sorry, Wiggo, but you’re the one who sucks.
Assem Allam puts his mouth where
his money is
They admire plain speaking in Yorkshire, but Hull City owner Assem Allam’s “I don’t mind them singing ‘City till we die’. They can die as soon as they want,” riposte at protesting supporters went down like a lead balloon. Assam, who’s sunk more than £60 million into the club, believes renaming it Hull Tigers will signify “power” and increased marketability. Perhaps he should take his cues from Chelsea boss Roman Abramovich, who keeps his gob shut when the peasants are revolting and leaves the quips to Jose Mourinho.
Kerry Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate.
BBC presenter John Inverdale continues to attract almost as many column inches as our new Wimbledon Champion, Andy Murray. The Guardian alone could probably fill a 24-page supplement with scathing condemnations of the man who obviously felt Marion Bartoli wasn’t slim, glamorous or sufficiently Eastern European to grace Centre Court last Saturday. To borrow a withering put-down from Judi Dench’s “M”, Inverdale is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. But those who think it should be “all ova” for him at the Beeb are going to be disappointed. He’ll be flaunting his reptilian charm, “helmet” hair and dubious taste in shirts on the BBC’s coverage of Wimbledon 2014.
Inverdale would probably have fitted in well at Kerry Packer’s Channel Nine, back in the even more sexist, misogynist and prehistoric 1970s. As the Great British Summer of Sport rolled into the Ashes series, Howzat! Kerry Packer’s War, smashed its way onto BBC4, a channel usually associated with high-minded documentaries and subtitled movies.
This two-part Australian miniseries covers a turbulent period in the history of cricket, when overbearing, foul-mouthed media tycoon Kerry Packer (played by Lachy Hulme) went to war over TV rights with the stuffed-shirt administrators running the game. He procured the services of top players like Ian and Greg Chappell, Rodney Marsh and England captain Tony Grieg, with promises of big financial rewards. In doing so, he created the short-lived World Series Cricket – a brash, lucrative and star-studded rival to the existing international cricket competitions.
You don’t have to know much about cricket – let alone Australian cricket – to appreciate this show as low-budget sporting melodrama of the highest order. Lachy Hulme summons the spirit of the late Larry Hagman in the role of the TV mogul everyone loved to hate. Backed into a corner by a cadre of national cricket boards and the ICC, Packer is an unstoppable force of nature, who spews out expletives and dispenses wads of cash at an equally alarming rate. Sir Alex Ferguson’s “hairdryer” treatment would look like a mild dressing down compared with watching Packer go ballistic at his business partners John Cornell (Abe Forsythe) and Austin Robertson (Nicholas Coghlan). I’ve never seen a salad tossed (or hurled) with quite so much venom either.
Talking of dressing, lovers of 70s fashion will revel in the parade of big collars and even bigger moustaches on display in almost every scene. Packer was clean-shaven, but just about every major Aussie cricketer of that era had an impressive thatch sprouting above his upper lip, through which he sucked prodigious quantities of beer. The problem is that the ‘taches and the dodgy wigs become indistinguishable after a while. Apart from Brendan Cowell (The Slap), who plays wicket keeper Rod Marsh, none of the actors Howzat! in were familiar to me. Thank goodness Tony Grieg had a South African accent (ironically he’s played by an actor called Alexander England), otherwise I might have been even more confused.
Kerry Packer may have been generous with his cash, but it looks as though the producers of Howzat! were on a much more restricted budget. Though the drama hops between Sydney, Melbourne and London, even the most inattentive viewer will be laughing at the clumsy transitions into archive footage, to give the impression that real locations have been used. I particularly enjoyed a sequence at “Lord’s”, where we cut between close-ups of Packer and his cronies to long-shot footage of some other blokes having a chat in the middle of the hallowed turf. Numerous shots of London buses are supposed to add to the authenticity, but look as unconvincing as the (new) £10 note that Grieg hands to an irate taxi driver.
As with the British media’s coverage of Wimbledon 2013, Howzat! is resolutely male chauvinist in its outlook. Women are there solely to look decorative, answer phones and fetch snacks. When, like Packer’s long-suffering secretary, they only achieve a Marion Bartoli level of attractiveness, the boss is not impressed.
Kerry Packer may have started a revolution in the cricketing world, but I’m not so sure attitudes towards women have moved on much since the mustachioed mid-70s.
In honour of its 40th anniversary, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has come up with a great slogan “40 Love”. It’s a shame that in those “Forty years of breaking barriers”, some of the game’s top players haven’t mastered the art of being civil to each other – on or off the court.
Yesterday’s Wimbledon semi-final between fourth seed Agnieszka Radwanska and the marauding German Sabine Lisicki was one of the most exciting, high-quality women’s matches I’ve seen for years. Mind you, that’s not saying a lot. As the women’s game has cranked up the volume in recent years, I find the incessant yelping has a detrimental effect on my health. But the Radwanska/Lisicki had all the ingredients you need for a great tennis contest – contrasting styles, fluctuating fortunes and mid-match meltdown by the German that was painful to behold. The only soundtrack was provided by enthusiastic spectators on Centre Court, who were enjoying the rare sight of a women’s match that didn’t suck.
Lisicki eventually prevailed in a 9-7 third set. She was (understandably) jubilant about reaching her first Major final. In the BBC commentary box, an excited Simon Reed demonstrated that he understood the concept of impartiality almost as well as his older brother Ollie Reed used to master the art of sobriety. Unfortunately, the aftermath of a memorable semi-final was soured by Radwanska’s grudging handshake and rapid departure from Centre Court. She had lost; she was disappointed; she wanted to be back in the locker room.
The bad news for Radwanska is that in this age of Trial by Twitter, an ungracious exit can hurt you almost as much as a double-fault or a service return that sails over the baseline. So it wasn’t long before their brief moment at the net was being disseminated, dissected and condemned by fans, tennis insiders and those who just can’t resist a good cat fight.
On BBC2′s Today at Wimbledon, Lindsay Davenport described Radwanska’s reaction as “unsportsmanlike”, while Martina Navratilova said it was “disappointing” and recalled that she’d never avoided looking her conqueror in the eye. Radwanska’s own misfiring attempt at sarcasm when questioned about the end of the match – “Should I just be there and dance?” – didn’t help her cause either.
The news cycle and the tennis world will quickly move on to other triumphs and disasters. In today’s men’s semi-finals we’ll be clocking the speed of Jerzy Janowicz’s service not measuring the froideur at the net. The big story will be about the continuing dominance of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, or perhaps a breakthrough for Janowicz or Del Potro.
The message seems clear: men’s tennis is about athletic achievement, while the women’s game is just a sideshow to all the bitching, backstabbing and possible gamesmanship. Earlier this year, Victoria Azarenka’s Australian Open victory was overshadowed by her apparent panic attack during her controversial semi-final match against Sloane Stephens. The build-up to Wimbledon was accompanied by a spat between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova over comments that the American made in an interview with Rolling Stone. Was Serena having a pop at Maria’s relationship with Grigor Dimitrov? Who cares.
Watching the other Wimbledon semi-final yesterday, between Marion Bartoli and Kirsten Flipkens, was Bartoli’s new coach, Amelie Mauresmo. In a perfect world, Mauresmo would be remembered for her glorious one-handed backhand and for being one of the most stylish exponents of the women’s game. Sadly, the 2006 Wimbledon champion’s name is also synonymous with some thoughtless comments made by Martina Hingis in 1999. Perhaps something got lost in translation, but German reporters suggested that Hingis had said of the openly gay Mauresmo “she is half a man”.
Maria, Serena, Victoria, Agnieszka and the rest enjoy the vast financial rewards of a game that was put on the map by Billie Jean King and the other pioneers of professional tennis. Now it’s time they grew up and showed some professionalism and respect in their rivalries. They’re being paid like the men, so they should take a good look at how champions like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray behave when the battle is over. Otherwise the slogan for the much vaunted WTA should read: “40 Love/Hate”.
Three years ago during the French Open I wrote a blog about how unappealing women’s tennis had become. I stand by those comments. With their one-dimensional games, celebrity boyfriends and multi-octave shrieking, the likes of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka make me want to run screaming from the room. Now at last there’s a ray of hope on the tennis horizon. The early exits of the “Gruesome Twosome” made the Wimbledon 2013 quarter-final line-up more interesting than usual, with Germany’s Sabine Lisicki the new favourite with crowds and bookies.
Watching Lisicki outmanoeuvre the seemingly unbeatable Serena Williams on Centre Court yesterday was fun. (Not for Serena, obviously, though at least she didn’t resort to one of those limp, no-eye-contact handshakes at the net afterwards.) Like the American, the German has that rare combination in women’s tennis of power and variety in that huge “Boom Boom” serve. It’s not often you see Serena get aced on a second serve.
It’s refreshing to see a powerful woman who does more with all that “oomph” than just yell, pump her fist and blast the ball down the middle of the court until her opponent falls over. Instead Lisicki advances to the net and goes for the drop shot almost as often as the prodigiously sweaty Rafa Nadal goes for the towel. Despatching Estonia’s statuesque Kaia Kanepi 6-3, 6-3 in today’s quarter-final, she often left her opponent floundering behind the baseline with shots neatly deposited halfway up the service box.
Watching the likeable German reach her second Wimbledon semi-final was venerable BBC commentator, Barry Davies, a man who appreciates that there’s more to good tennis than diamond earrings and a fistful of endorsements. Last week Barry suggested that Spain’s Nicolas Almagro had been “marmalised” during his third round defeat to Polish beanpole Jerzy Janowicz. (As The Guardian’s more prosaic headline put it, “Jerzy Janowicz biffs his way past Nicolás Almagro.”)
Unlike some of his colleagues, Barry dates from that long-forgotten era when insight and eloquence were more valued qualities in sports commentary than just “personality”. Also in the commentary box was Martina Navratilova, who once ruled these courts with a game that was as formidable Lisicki’s, though her personality was a good deal less sunny most of the time.
Though I’ve been genuinely excited to see players like Lisicki, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwańska going for their shots, others have been focusing elsewhere. Like their counterparts in other sports, female tennis players cannot escape the relentless scrutiny of their looks and demeanour. (That must be why Radwańska goes on court caked in enough mascara for all the other seven quarter-finalists put together.) So journalists and fans soon noted that Sabine’s secret weapon wasn’t so much her kick serve as her uncanny ability to smile in the face of adversity.
It is one of the more absurd laws of modern tennis that allows players to take lengthy “injury” time-outs when the momentum is going against them or they feel nervous. Azarenka was accused of gamesmanship when she did this in her semi-final against Sloane Stephens at this year’s Australian Open. Radwańska also sought medical attention at a key point in today’s quarter-final, before going on to win. But yesterday Sabine stayed on court and kept smiling through a morale-sapping period in which she lost nine games in a row against Serena. For most players that would be curtains.
Questioned by intrepid BBC reporter Garry Richardson after today’s quarter-final, a still-grinning Lisicki patiently responded, “I’m just passionate about the sport.” It was the kind of stock answer that Ernests Gulbis would doubtless describe as “boring”, but I found it endearing.
I don’t usually bother watching the Women’s Final at Wimbledon, but if the name Sabine Lisicki is inscribed on that famous Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday then I might be smiling too.
If you’re a fan of tennis fashion (and history), you might enjoy my Pinterest board “Tennis’s Greatest Headbands”.
The transition from avid Pope watching to fervent Argie bashing was almost seamless. Less than 24 hours after Pope Francis I (the one-lunged Pontiff) made his first balcony appearance in Saint Peter’s Square, the British press was reminding us of supposedly inflammatory comments he made 12 months ago about the Falkland Islands. Speaking on the 30th anniversary of the start of the Falklands War, Jorge Bergoglio (as he was then), led prayers for the fallen and referenced the disputed territory as “the country that is theirs and they were usurped”.
Meanwhile, The Guardian had its own axe to grind, delving into the murky history of the Argentine junta in the 70s and 80s and Bergoglio’s role as part of the discredited Catholic hierarchy of that era.
Not to be outdone, The Sun weighed in with its “Hand of God” headline – a none-to-subtle reference to Diego Maradona’s controversial “goal” for Argentina against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final. By tonight, I fully expect to be reading that the new Pope Francis cheats at cards and has been caught riding the bus in Buenos Aires without paying.
I’m not a Catholic but I am a sports fan, and the real story here seems to be Britain’s longstanding antipathy towards lying, cheating Argies of all shapes and sizes. On the same night that Pope Francis was elected, Andy Murray was having a run in with Argentina’s Carlos Berlocq at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. The Scot eventually won their fourth-round match 7-6, 6-4, but he was enraged by his opponent’s “extremely, extremely loud” grunting at key moments during the match.
“Murray annoyed at stupid grunt”, claims The Sun, in what by that paper’s high standards is a rather limp headline. I’d have gone with something a bit more indignant – “Muzza blasts grunting Argie”. That might strike a chord with the Telegraph reader who quipped earlier today in reference to Pope Francis, “I thought we’d sunk the General Bergoglio”.
Having listened to the brief clip on the paper’s website, I think Muzza does have legitimate cause for complaint. As far as I know, Andy’s never criticised his good friend and rival Rafael Nadal for inappropriate on-court noises. That’s probably because the Spaniard keeps his grunting at a consistent level throughout – much like his legendary whipped topspin forehand. So let’s hope that Berlocq doesn’t team up with Victoria Azarenka or Maria Sharapova for mixed doubles, or the decibel count will be well off the Larcher de Brito scale.
Closer to home, another Argentine we love to hate is in trouble yet again this week. Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez has been charged with driving his white Porsche while disqualified and without insurance. If found guilty he could face a jail sentence, a fine, or even an ASBO, though probably not a lengthy spell in manager Roberto Mancini’s bad books. Unlike the British press, Mancini has been notable for his forgiving attitude towards Tevez – whatever the provocation. Last weekend he joked “I hope that the police can stop him every day”, after Carlos celebrated his arrest by scoring a hat-trick against Barnsley in the FA Cup.
But there are some Argentine sportsmen who enjoy an unsullied reputation. In the 70s we marvelled at the muscular tennis player Guillermo Vilas, whose successes in the mid-70s have been rather overshadowed by those of Bjorn Borg. A few years later, there was Gabriela Sabatini, whose film-star looks are now ideal for promoting her own range of perfumes.
Formula One fans still revere Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five world championships, survived a kidnapping and heart surgery and lived to the ripe old age of 84.
But perhaps the greatest Argentine sports star is the man who was dominating the headlines 24 hours before Pope Francis. The majestic Lionel Messi scored two goals on Tuesday night, to help Barcelona beat AC Milan 4-0 in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Carlos Tevez may struggle with tricky English words like “constabulary”, but for the prolific Messi, “phenomenal” and “fantastic” don’t really need translating.
“John Terry’s career has been defined by courage, commitment and . . . controversy.” That was the verdict of an earnest BBC reporter with airtime to fill but not much in the way of new information about the latest drama to engulf the Chelsea captain. On the eve of his FA disciplinary hearing on a charge of racism, Terry announced last night that he was quitting the England team with “a broken heart”.
It was all a world away from the cosy Sunday evening fare usually provided by the likes of Downton Abbey. But in terms of narrative incoherence, unintentional humour and a total lack of character development, perhaps the John Terry Story could have come from the pen of Julian Fellowes.
Of course the BBC tactfully omitted to mention that it was John Terry’s use of a four-letter C-word that may end up defining his topsy-turvy career as football’s Man You Love to Hate. But an unwritten law only allows that word to be used by BBC presenters when discussing the former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of eradicating racist language and behaviour from football, sport and society as a whole. But Terry’s dispute with QPR’s Anton Ferdinand has always struck me as a playground spat between a couple of numbskulls rather than racism per se. That’s just my opinion, though, so do feel free to go on Twitter and abuse me if you disagree. (Just kidding.)
Sadly, John Terry’s attempt to present himself as the victim of an FA witch hunt has gone down about as well as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s recent apology for raising tuition fees. Terry thought his acquittal on criminal charges back in July should have been the end of the matter, but those sages at the FA have to see the bigger picture.
So now we have another C-word to throw at the Chelsea captain — capitulation. Some believe that he’s chosen to call time on his England career rather than lose his place if this disciplinary hearing goes against him. Come to think of it, we could probably review a decade’s worth of headlines on John Terry — “Captain, Leader, Legend” — without getting much further than the third letter of the alphabet.
Cuckolding Wayne BridgeIn 2010 it was Terry’s ex-colleague Wayne Bridge making the headlines for refusing a handshake. It turned out that the amorous JT had done a lot more than just shake hands with Vanessa Perroncel, Wayne’s former squeeze and mother of his son, Jaydon. Bridge quit England in a huff and those supersubs at the Daily Mail came up with this really clunky headline.
Capello falls on his swordAlways a model of consistency, Fabio “the Communicator” Capello was the England coach who stripped Terry of the England captaincy in 2010 over the “Bridgegate” affair, and then reinstated him in 2011 to the astonishment of Rio Ferdinand and just about everyone else. Earlier this year the FA decided to remove Terry from the job again, prompting Capello to quit in a huff. Are you seeing a pattern here?
Crashing the Champions League partyApril fool JT was banned from playing in the 2012 Champions League Final against Bayern Munich after his “knees-up” with Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez in the semi-final second leg. Never one to miss a party, JT changed into his full Chelsea kit to collect the Champions League Trophy, prompting some wags on Twitter to mock-up other scenes of (unearned) Terry triumphs.
Court in the actThe racism trial wasn’t the first time John Terry found himself in court. In 2002 a fresh-faced Terry was one of three players prosecuted after a brawl in a Knightsbridge club. He was acquitted of assault and affray. A year earlier he’d been fined by Chelsea for mocking American tourists at Heathrow after 9/11. Over the years there have been many other piss-taking incidents, including one involving a glass full of urine.
Crying shameFinally, who can forget the sight of John Terry crying after missing his penalty in the 2008 Champions League Final. The Sun’s “Tears of a penalty clown” caption summed up the sight of rain-soaked and blubbing JT. I almost felt sorry for him.
This is scary. Completely unbidden, my iTunes library has started playing “Nothing Else Matters” as I sat down to blog about the second week of the London 2012 Olympics. Lissie’s cover version of Metallica’s 20-year-old power ballad fits the bill nicely as the soundtrack to my ongoing despair at our Games-obsessed media. For unbridled triumphalism, jingoism and tunnel vision, Britain’s eager beaver army of reporters and feature writers take the gold medal every time.
In case you’ve been holidaying in another galaxy or couldn’t care less about sport, I should point out that Team GB is enjoying unprecedented sporting success at the London 2012 Olympics. With 51 medals — 24 of them gold — we’re currently in third place behind superpowers China and the USA. Not bad for a nation of 62 million chip-eating, Coke-swilling couch potatoes, with a dwindling supply of open space in which to run, ride, cycle and swim.
I have nothing but admiration for all the members of Team GB — the medal-winners, the heroic failures and the also-rans. Britain’s modest and hard-working Olympic athletes are a refreshing change from listening to the weekly rantings of overpaid, inarticulate and morally bankrupt footballers. But it worries me when the athletic achievements of the home team have completely hijacked the news agenda. If you’re reading this outside the UK, bear in mind that I’m not just talking about the two weeks of the Olympic Games: we’ve had a full seven years of media hype.
The first week was fun. Admittedly, Team GB’s failure to get among the medals in the Olympic road race on Day 1 did cause a massive post-Tour de France hangover. But then there was Lizzie Armitstead’s silver in the women’s road, (Sir) Bradley Wiggins’s gold in the time trial, and successes galore for our rowers and track cyclists. Before you knew it Team GB had more gold on its hands than a marauding pirate crew. But it wasn’t so much a case of “Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum” as an unending chorus of “Where’s the next medal coming from?”
I can pinpoint the exact moment at which these Olympics “jumped the shark”. Last Saturday night, heptathlete Jessica Ennis, marvellous Mo Farah and unassuming long jumper Greg Rutherford all won gold in a breathtaking 45 minutes in the Olympic Stadium. After a summer in which Bradley Wiggins has won the Tour de France, I remember thinking that it couldn’t get much better than this for UK sport.
So instead of savouring this golden moment, BBC1 viewers were abruptly whisked off to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff just in time to see the GB football team lose on penalties to South Korea. Talk about a mood killer. It was a bit like leaving a champagne reception to attend a 2 for 1 curry evening at your local boozer. Presenter Gary Lineker looked almost as tearful as when his studio guest Ian Thorpe got a free transfer to the Clare Balding team at the Aquatics Centre. I’m sure it wasn’t Gary’s idea to cut from scenes of unparalleled sporting triumph to (let’s be honest) inevitable football failure, but someone should have known better.
The next morning at least one Sunday paper was describing Super Saturday as Britain’s “greatest day for 104 years”. What, better than VE Day 1945, the World Cup Final of 1966 or the glorious occasion on which Margaret Thatcher finally said “sayonara” to Downing Street? You cannot be serious!
Since then there have been loads more medals for Team GB, including an improbable gold for Andy Murray in the Olympic tennis, against an underpowered Roger Federer. We’ve seen Grenada earn its first ever Olympic gold, courtesy of the brilliant 400m runner Kirani James. We’ve also applauded Sarah Attar, Saudi Arabia’s first female track competitor to take part in the Games.
Yes, the Olympic Games is supposed to be a celebration of diversity and international sporting achievements — not parochialism and sour grapes. Steve Cram’s reaction to Algeria’s Taoufik “Lazarus” Makhloufi winning gold in the 1,500m on Tuesday was so peevish that Brendan Foster had to step in and shut him up. Makhloufi had been controversially reinstated in the event after being disqualified for not really trying in his 800m heat. We all knew he wasn’t really “injured”, but this hardly seemed the moment to keep harping on about it.
With all our medals and so many athletes to be proud of, do we really need to “big” ourselves up by denigrating less successful countries at these Games? If I had a fiver for every time some BBC twerp has sneered about the Australian medals drought I’d be on a plane to Nice right now. This “Yorkshire’s more successful than Australia” line is very childish and completely irrelevant if you look at the big picture outside the sporting sphere.
The UK has a ballooning trade deficit, negligible growth prospects and an idiot for a Chancellor; the Australian economy is holding up better than expected. When the dust settles on London 2012 I wonder who’s going to be feeling more secure about the future.
Does the Olympics really need tennis? Until my visit to the All England Club yesterday, I’m one of those who would have questioned the point of holding an attenuated version of the world’s greatest tennis tournament so soon after Wimbledon 2012. Perhaps it was the rare appearance of the sun, or the sheer enthusiasm of all the 2012 volunteers, but I left SW19 feeling that “Inspire a Generation” might be more than just an empty slogan.
First up on Court 1 was reigning Wimbledon Champion, Roger Federer, against Uzbekistan’s most famous export, Denis Istomin. Other superheroes might wear a red cape or mask, but the “Federator” was sporting an elegant red shirt, with matching head and wristbands. I’m not Federer’s biggest admirer, but watching him in action must be somewhere on that list of 1001 things to do before you die. Bamboozling opponents with his spins, slices and unerring placement, Roger could be the tennis equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Not white marble perfection, but poetry in motion — and not a drop of sweat in sight.
You can’t really appreciate the genius of the man on TV, because you’re constantly distracted by the fawning commentary and the sight of Roger rearranging his well-tended locks so as not to obscure the sponsor’s “swoosh”. Unfortunately, it would have taken something much larger than Federer’s head to obscure that very uninspiring London 2012 logo, which is on display around Wimbledon this week. Nike’s ubiquitous “swoosh” is a design classic; the London 2012 logo is like a clumsy rearrangement of a second-rate Matisse cut-out, and it looks even worse in green than it does in pink.
Wimbledon has been subtly rebranded for the Olympic tennis event. With a three-set singles format (apart from the men’s final) and no third set in the mixed, there’s less chance of an Isneresque marathon. But it’s the colourful new look of the place and the hordes of young volunteers manning everything from security to the catering outlets that make this feel like a different event. They’re also pumping pop music into an arena that’s previously been the sole domain of Cliff Richard.
Centre Court is still wreathed in ivy and the courts look almost as pristine as Roger’s shoes — despite the recent wear and tear. But the classic Wimbledon green and purple palette has been replaced by something a bit brasher, and the players aren’t restricted to predominantly white attire. Radek Stepanek’s blue and red shoes fell foul of the tournament’s rules this year, but they were conservative compared with the gaudy green, yellow and red London 2012 footwear designed for India’s doubles maestro, Leander Paes.
Judging by the number of flags and brightly painted faces I saw, fans are embracing the fact that Olympic tennis is about more than just the year-round scramble for dollars and ranking points. Seeing Federer in fetching Swiss red or Andy Murray in patriotic shades of blue makes them more identifiable as representatives of their country. But I can’t work out what Istomin’s dreary black and white ensemble had to do with the Uzbekistan national colours.
Though the fans were loudly supporting their home nation, there was room for plenty more of them. The grounds were emptier and the queues shorter than on my previous visits to Wimbledon. It felt like another ticketing fiasco, but perhaps they’d all just migrated to the overstocked 2012 shop or to Murray Mount to watch Britain’s Number 1 in action on Centre Court.
Back on Court 1, top seed Victoria Azarenka was doing her best to “Inspire a Generation” by wearing down Russia’s Nadia Petrova. Like John McEnroe, I used to think that Azarenka was the most famous living sportswoman from Belarus. We were both wrong. “Mother of Gymnastics” Olga Korbut, who rivalled Mark Spitz as the superstar of the 1972 Munich Olympics, is also Belarusian.
But Vika7 (as she’s known on Twitter) was entertaining the younger fans not with her crushing baseline game but by the trademark “whoop” that accompanies every shot. After a few minutes I realised that the on-court racket was being copied — even mocked — by some of the kids in the stands. “Why is she making that noise?” asked the seven-year-old girl behind me. To his credit, her dad came up with a very plausible explanation about “effort”.
Azarenka went through to the semi-final today, beating Germany’s Angelique Kerber. If she wins a gold medal this weekend, I just hope it’s her tennis and not her extravagant vocal performance that echoes down the years and inspires a generation.
For years the BBC’s voice of swimming was the unfortunately named Hamilton Bland, whose TV career ended in controversy in the late 90s. There’s nothing bland about his successors, former Olympians Adrian Moorhouse and Andy Jameson, who sounded as though they’d swallowed several gallons of Red Bull as they jabbered their way through last night’s pool action at London 2012.
There was endless talk about “strong back ends”, which I’m hoping was a reference to the swimming rather than the anatomies of some of the more well-built competitors. Andy, a butterfly bronze medallist in Seoul, foolishly attempted a critique of a breaststroker’s technique and was gleefully slapped down by his more clued-up partner. (Moorhouse took gold in the 100m breaststroke in 1988.)
Through all the chortling and frequent cries of “I’m so excited!”, I sometimes lost track of what was going on in the water. But with the ongoing furore about empty seats at Olympic venues, it was good to hear the Aquatics Centre buzzing with the sound of excited fans and even more excited BBC commentators.
You couldn’t help getting caught up in the atmosphere, as our Beijing golden girl Becky Adlington picked up a hard-earned bronze medal in the women’s 400m freestyle final. Moorhouse and Jameson were both genuinely thrilled as perennial underachievers France beat Michael Phelps’s USA team in a closely contested 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay.
These are testing times for TV viewers who don’t like sport, with up to 24 live streams broadcasting Olympic events on the BBC website. Even if you couldn’t care less about the rivalry between prolific medallist Phelps and Hunk of the Moment, Ryan Lochtie, the interaction between the various BBC pairings was intriguing.
On Saturday the men’s cycling road race featured just two beleaguered commentators (Chris Boardman and Hugh Porter) and one unbelievably tactless interviewer, Jill Douglas. (She won’t be getting an invite to Alexandre Vinokourov’s retirement bash.) But for the swimming, the “Andy ‘n’ Adey” double act was backed up by Sharron Davies asking the questions, with Clare Balding and Mark Foster perched above the pool.
With her sensible haircut and no-nonsense approach, Clare increasingly reminds me of the school games mistress who used to counsel us against the dangers of sitting on hot radiators. Balding has drawn criticism for questioning the extraordinary performance of China’s 16-year-old Ye Shiwen, who won gold in a world record time in the women’s 400m individual medley. (She swam faster than her male counterpart, Ryan Lochte.)
Needless to say, the Beeb has defended Clare’s right to raise this thorny issue with her co-presenter, Mark Foster. But I think many female viewers will also be asking whether poster-boy Foster has an all-over tan and — more important — what the hell is wrong with Ian Thorpe?
Australia’s “Thorpedo” was watching the action from the BBC’s Olympic Studio with host Gary Lineker. Neither of them looked particularly happy. Away from Match of the Day, Gary doesn’t have a whole lot to offer, apart from talking up Britain’s medal prospects and introducing frequent puntastic (“Oarsome”) tasters for forthcoming attractions.
The fashion-conscious Thorpe, obviously knows swimming inside out — he’s got five Olympic gold medals in his bulging trophy cabinet. But he looks miserable about being wheeled out as the BBC’s star pundit on the swimming action. Seeing him tear up every time he talked about his own glorious days as a teenage swimming prodigy, was like watching a lachrymose James Dean wind himself up for a particularly strenuous bout of method acting.
Cheer up, Thorpey, you’re only stuck with Lineker for a couple of weeks — we have to put up him 52 weeks of the year.