Tag Archives: Sport

The drama of news headlines

 

Newspapers are less important than they used to be, as proved by years of declining circulation. Perhaps no surprise, then, that newspaper headlines now are often long, plain and inelegant.

One recent example which bucked the trend was “Enemies of the people”, the Daily Mail’s concise and provocative description of the High Court judges who ruled that Parliament, and not the Prime Minister, should vote to begin the UK’s process to leave the European Union.

It recalled another Daily Mail headline from those earlier days of high circulation and political influence: “The Enemy Within”, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s criticism of the miners’ during the 1984-1985 strike.

A few more from that era stick in my mind. When Arthur Ashe defeated the favourite Jimmy Connors to win the men’s singles tennis title at Wimbledon in 1975, more than one paper saw the available pun. “King Arthur’s court”, The Observer stated. However, the Sunday Express extended it more eloquently to “Connors bows at the court of King Arthur”.

In 1979, the announcement that Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, had been a Soviet spy since his youth resonated perfectly with the popularity of John Le Carré’ s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and its TV adaptation. The Glasgow Herald borrowed one of Le Carré’s great pieces of espionage jargon for their headline of “Mole at the Palace”, but I thought Blunt’s character suited better the more old-fashioned, and more stylish, phrasing by the Daily Mail: “Traitor at the Queen’s right hand”.

This September sees the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, one of the most dramatic media events in my lifetime. Most of the press and TV coverage at that time made me wince, and its polarising effect is shown well in the Peter Morgan/Stephen Frears film The Queen.

However, one headline which I did admire came from the Glasgow Herald at the start of that dramatic week in 1997 when Diana’s body was flown back from Paris to RAF Northolt. “Home – to a nation of broken hearts” displayed assonance, alliteration and an appropriate sense of rhythm.

 

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Every four years

 

T.S.Eliot’s J.Alfred Prufrock said that he measured his life in coffee spoons, but perhaps many of us also count them by World Cups or Olympic Games, international sports events held every four years which receive unavoidable media coverage.

In childhood, I was vaguely aware of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics (with the BBC’s distinctive Euro-Oriental theme music) but my first proper Games was Mexico in 1968. In being chosen to host Olympics and World Cup consecutively, Mexico must have been in a similar position to Brazil now: politically or culturally fashionable. The major difference then of course was that TV programme hours were much fewer so a breakfast time programme of sports highlights was a real treat before school.

 

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Barcelona in 2002.

 

The next few Olympics shone for different reasons. Moscow in 1980 for the athletic rivalry between British pair Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, which, as mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve always credited as one reason for the popularity of the film Chariots of Fire. Los Angeles in 1984 for the highly dramatic track meeting between American Mary Decker and South African Zola Budd. Barcelona in 1992 was significant if only for the radio report just before it started which drew my belated attention to the fact that it was a place of international art and culture which perhaps I should visit.

 

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Sydney in 2000. The sailing took place in the bay and the marathon route followed the coast around.

 

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Adelaide in 2000. The former East End Market building.

 

By coincidence, my first visit to Sydney was just a few weeks before its 2000 Games. Inadvertently on TV I caught one episode of a timely satirical comedy The Games. Although I knew nothing about the Australian political context it was still easy to appreciate and I was struck ten years later how similar it was to the BBC’s 2012. A visit to Adelaide coincided with the visit of the Olympic torch relay and made me surprised that such a small city centre might host this key event. Twelve years later, the British torch relay was winding through dozens of smaller towns before the opening ceremony.

 

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Spectators await the arrival of the 2012 Olympic Torch as the relay approaches Burns Cottage, Ayr.

 

Although the era of multi-channel TV has hugely increased the number of sports and events you can see throughout the year, the Olympics does not seem to have lost its special celebrity among the younger generations of journalists and broadcasters. It is part of a tradition dating back to 1896, but it is certainly helped by the fact that the performances of UK sportsmen and women (or Team GB, as we are encouraged to call them) have been improving in recent times, with the concurrent politicians’ response of bestowing knighthoods and other honours.

 

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London in 1996. Manchester had just failed in a bid to host the Olympics, and the Millennium rather than the Olympics was the imminent event in London’s sights.

 

Younger generations have a tendency to exaggerate their judgment and apply hyperbole to their limited knowledge (mine certainly did) so I was impressed that journalist Tom Fordyce based his article on the currently pressing issue on who has been the greatest ever Olympic athlete from a decently broad perspective, mentioning Paavo Nurmi and Fanny Blankers-Koen as well as the more obvious Jesse Owens and Nadia Comeneci.

Some Olympic sports must be seen as out of date, though. Archery, shooting and fencing were once regarded as important skills for a military gentleman, but are surely inappropriate in an era when all around the world we are trying to reduce violence and its glorification.

 

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Cultural honours

 

When UK government honours are announced twice a year, it is those recipients who come from the areas of sport and entertainment who tend to receive the greatest attention.

I always think that two of the key events in the history of cultural honours must have been the knighthoods given to Laurence Olivier and to Matt Busby.

The former led to a succession of elevated thespians, such as John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, and, in recent times, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher and Kenneth Branagh, whose status seem especially to impress international audiences.

But Olivier did not get the knighthood merely for being an accomplished and successful actor. I am sure he received it in 1947 specifically for directing and starring in the successful film Henry V which was perceived to be an important wartime morale-booster.

In turn, Busby did not get his knighthood for being the manager of a successful British football team who won the European Cup in 1968.  He got it for being the manager who built a European Cup-winning team from the one who had suffered multiple casualties in the Munich air crash ten years before.

Busby’s knighthood led directly to one for Alex Ferguson. Since Busby had been given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the European Cup, the popular media argument went in 1999, Ferguson should be given a knighthood for leading Manchester United to victory in the Champions League. However such argument forgot or ignored the difficulties which Busby, himself seriously injured in the Munich air crash, had to overcome in order to reach his success. Neither Ferguson nor the club needed to overcome any similar challenges in that later era of TV millions.

This has gradually led, in my view, to a serious level of honours inflation. There are a lot of actors and sportsman (you make your own list) who have been given the top honours merely for a decent length of performing career or a number of Olympic medals. Some athletic knights or dames have been so honoured when they are young enough to be still competing.

And it makes me think back to the MBEs awarded to the Beatles in 1965. That event was one of the first times I became aware of the world of news. The award was specifically for the group’s financial success: services to British exports. Yet there must have been plenty of grumpy old men like me who complained about such an honour being given to a group of long-haired howlers. It was still early in their short career. If it had been done at the end of their career, it might have been more understandable. It suggests that some members of the Harold Wilson government were more attuned to the new modern technological world than some later politicians who would rate highly their antennae in that area.

 

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Wimbledon McEnroe

 

What first made me watch the Wimbledon tennis championships as a child was almost certainly the fact that it was on TV just at the start of the summer holidays and effectively formed a banner signalling the start of eight weeks off school. Another factor would have been that, like one or two other sports events, it always seemed to get allocated star billing by the BBC’s Grandstand.  “Grand National Grandstand”, “Boat Race Grandstand”, “Wimbledon Grandstand…”

Although I do have some memories of the 1960s dominance of the Australian men like Rod Laver and John Newcombe and of Billie-Jean King in the women’s event, I seemed to gain greater interest during  the 1970s era of Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova. It probably had a lot to do with free time at the end of school or university terms, live coverage encroaching into normal TV schedules and the fact that my great hero, Clive James, covered the tournament in his TV reviews in The Observer.

John McEnroe was, of course, part of that era. I wasn’t a great fan of McEnroe: I found his (in)famous on-court tantrums annoying rather than understandable , admiring more the quiet concentration of such as Bjorn Borg.

Gradually during the 1980s, my attention in the championships as a whole  waned. They became something out of the corner of my eye during June, subordinated by other interests. Then I noticed, around the turn of the century, that the older, retired McEnroe, shorter haired, greying at the temples, had become a commentator and pundit for the BBC at Wimbledon.

This was counter-intuitive to more people than just me. In his playing prime, McEnroe’s persona was aggressive, argumentative, self-regarding. Yet, now he was knowledgeable, articulate, confident, but also gracious and co-operative.

I particularly loved the BBC trailer in 2004 for the upcoming Wimbledon with McEnroe selling the drama of the event to a film producer.  Annoyingly, no copy of the video appears to survive online.

Wimbledon has something for every audience, McEnroe exhorted. He specified four or five movie themes or elements although I remember only two: the small town boy made good – Roger Federer; the romantic couple –  Kim Clijsters and Lleyton Hewitt.  But I clearly remember the punch-line: and what about a cliffhanger? McEnroe smiled. “Have you ever been to a Tim Henman semi-final?”

Ironically, that was probably the last year of the Tim Henman Era before we moved towards the (equally hysterical or totally different? – you decide) Andy Murray Era.

I will be watching just enough of Wimbledon this year to hear as much of McEnroe as possible.

 

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In the shadow of World War One

 

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One of the many World War One battlefield cemeteries in France and Belgium.

 

Given our continued fascination with World War One and our post-Olympics desire to find inspiring sporting stories, I’m surprised that Hugh Hudson’s film of Chariots of Fire  does not have a higher profile. It’s still more remembered as a (somewhat old-fashioned) success of the past rather than an engaging text of the present.

Some of its race scenes are, I think, brilliantly done and can be re-watched separately for their narratives of individual effort and courage : the “college dash” round the quadrangle by Harold Abrahams and Lord Andrew Lindsay while the clock strikes twelve; Eric Liddell’s Scotland run against France at Edinburgh where he makes up a quarter of a lap watched by a disbelieving Abrahams; Liddell’s Olympics win, where his devout voice-over suggests his Christian faith has made his victory almost inevitable.

The film contains other great scenes of the psychology of the sportsman. For example, the sequence of Abrahams’ campaign of practice and progress, incited by his anger at anti-Semitic prejudice and depicted to the strains of Gilbert and Sullivan. A few minutes later, Abrahams presents his vision to coach Sam Mussabini at their first meeting, “I want that Olympic medal..I can see it there…but I can’t get it on my own”, and Mussabini wittily brings him down to earth with “it’s the coach that should do the asking”.

Mussabini anticipates Eric Liddell’s later move to 400 metres running by telling Abrahams  that the shorter distance doesn’t fully use Liddell’s gifts. The longer distance is more suitable for athletes of grit and courage and endurance like Liddell (“a gut runner”), while the 100 metres is “run on nerves” and is “tailor made for neurotics,” and therefore suited to Abrahams, who confesses to being a running “addict”. Abrahams later foresees his 100 metres final as “ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence”, an idea which I often heard recycled, if more kindly, by the media during the 2012 Olympics.

The period of Chariots of Fire is very much that of World War One. The earliest part of the story is set in 1919. No characters are specifically described as having served in the war, or having protested against it. However, both Abrahams and Liddell are presented as post-World War One characters, seeing the weaknesses in traditional national loyalties. Abrahams knows the British establishment prefers those who are Anglo-Saxon and Christian but believes these corridors of power can be trespassed by determination and dedication. Liddell believes that the Christian message is not fully heeded but that when applied it has overwhelming power.  As he preaches at the Church of Scotland in Paris, “All nations, before (God), are as nothing”.

Abrahams is too young to have seen active service at the front, and all his fellow athletes in the film are equally fresh-faced. Abrahams appreciates his good fortune in missing the war, a comment which earns the approval of the assistant porter when he first arrives at Caius , even while the senior porter is annoyed by Abrahams’ self-confidence, and comments snidely about his Jewish surname.  In the next scene of the college dinner, the Master of Caius delivers a sober welcome over shots of the lists of war casualties in the wood-panelled hall, exhorting the new students to apply in peace-time the same standards of self-sacrifice and effort shown by their predecessors on the battlefield .

A key scene comes later when the two university dons, the Master of Caius and the Master of Trinity, challenge Abrahams for infringing the university’s long- established amateur sports code. Abrahams defends his employment of an Italian-Arab professional coach as modern and fore-sighted against the dons’ “archaic” values and states, “I’ll carry the future with me”.

When Eric Liddell refuses to compete in his Olympics 100 metres heat on a Sunday, the upper-class British Olympic Committee of Lord Birkenhead, Lord Cadogan and the Prince of Wales all try to convince him to change his mind out of patriotism. However, the Duke of Sutherland, the committee President, clearly of the same generation as Abrahams and Liddell, suggests that the carnage of the war has shown that many of the old loyalties are flawed and outdated.  He sees Liddell as “a true man of principle” who should be respected. Although his sympathy is not enough to win the day for Liddell until the athletic aristocrat, Lord Andrew Lindsay, provides a practical solution.

Some other young members of the British athletics team still represent pre-war values. Although the aristocratic Lindsay is always shown in an attractive and sympathetic light, he is a stereotypical gentleman amateur who does his serious running only a few feet away from cigar and champagne. Fellow athlete Aubrey Montague’s voice-over suggests that he still responds to traditional bonds of national loyalty : “we’re here (at the Olympics) for Britain, and we know it”.

 

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In the distance, the beach in St Andrews which was the location for the Olympic squad running scenes at the beginning and end of “Chariots of Fire”.

 

Although characterised as someone fighting against anti-Semitic prejudice, the ambitious Abrahams is never shown as a practitioner of the Jewish faith.  While Abrahams uses his individual effort and Mussabini’s professional help to “take on” the Christian establishment, Liddell puts his faith in God to carry him through. Liddell believes his religious faith is entirely relevant to modern life. He explains to his sister, “God made me fast, and when I run I feel his pleasure…to win is to honour him”. That this may give him an advantage in competition with people of lesser faith is acknowledged by his US rival Jackson Schultz whose “good luck” note acknowledges that God said in the Bible, “he who honours me, I will honour”.  

On the film’s initial release in 1981, I felt that the rivalry of Abrahams and Liddell had an obvious real-life parallel in British Olympians Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. The gritty and sometimes surly Ovett seemed like Abrahams, and Coe, the graceful and more approachable record-breaker, seemed like Liddell. In later athletics, Coe probably showed as much determination as Ovett/Abrahams, although you could argue that in his political career he has shown a Liddell-like wish to see beyond the world of training and races and individual glory.

Despite its many strengths, the one feature which I do feel dates the film now is the fashion-conscious 1980s music by Vangelis. One or two rough and dissonant sections, such as the one which accompanies Abrahams’s defeat to Liddell, still work well due to their unfamiliarity, but the more swooping and bombastic parts undermine rather than enforce the visuals. I wonder how the score might work with a more restrained, perhaps Edwardian-style arrangement?  Perhaps changes were made for last year’s theatre production.

I remember the film’s writer Colin Welland saying that he found Eric Liddell rather than Harold Abrahams the more sympathetic and admirable character.  Perhaps because, as someone of left-of-centre political views, Welland saw Liddell as a champion of community with Abrahams as more individualistic.  If the narrative resonates with younger audiences now, I suspect it is for its two examples of individual striving against institutional opposition and prejudice  –  and certainly not the importance of religious faith.

Of course, it’s easy to forget in the middle of the drama how even struggling outsiders Abrahams and Liddell would have lived very privileged lives in comparison to most others in 1920s Britain.

 

 

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Football off the pitch

 

The new football season is beginning in the UK – although it might be said that, these days, we don’t have much of a pause from the previous one.

My childhood interest in football centred on the teams and their history as much as on 22 men kicking a ball around a park (prompted by reading such books as The Gillette Book of Cricket and Football )  and this interest has continued even as I have become less and less concerned about particular matches and whether goals have been scored or missed.  The sport of football is such an important part of British culture and it seems especially emblematic of the country’s story during the last 40 years : the decline of the old manufacturing towns and of the old working-class, the freer movement of labour around the European Union and the world, the increased commercialisation of all sport,  the expansion of global communications.

It has always fascinated me that the whole of the professional game in Scotland and England grew up during such a short period of time. The first clubs were founded in the 1860s and, yet, by the turn of the century less than forty years later, almost all of the constituent parts of the game we now recognise in Britain had been assembled  : the governing bodies, the leagues, the cups and a large number of the teams which are still playing.

The game largely originated as a working man’s pastime during the later Industrial Revolution, and, during the years when I was growing up, this had scarcely changed. Matches were still played mostly on Saturday afternoon, the tradition which had started because that was one time men had off from their five-and-a-half-day working week. I remember former player and broadcaster Bob Wilson once arguing that an important social cohesion was produced by the fact that so many local communities heard their names listed together as part of the Saturday tea-time football results.  The only regular football on TV was on lunch-time previews and evening highlights.  As depicted in Tom Hooper’s film of David Peace’s  The Damned United, the lives of most players were only slightly more rich and glamorous than those of their fans.

Change was most pronounced in the top English division after its breakaway from the rest of the Football League.  Enriched by huge amounts of money from the new satellite TV companies, the clubs in the league once called the Premiership and nowadays called the Premier League were able to employ, and pay handsomely, players who often had no connection with the English town or district the team represented.  

 Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote recently, “The Premier League is not a metaphor of a dysfunctional society, it is its fullest expression – a grotesquely overpaid, underperforming elite utterly disconnected from the communities from which its clubs take their names”.  Similar comments have often been made that a pastime which was once the province of the working man has, due to the continual increase in admission prices to see the top clubs and the top matches, become much more exclusive.

However, it has to be countered that many fans seem happy with these changes. They still flock to see matches which are on live TV and for which tickets might cost £30 or £40. Following the Premier League example, the English second division has successfully rebranded itself as the Championship and constructed its own virtuous circle of TV sponsorship, foreign players and managers and increasing attendances. So many teams feature regularly on TV that it now seems accepted that people should feel they are “supporters” of a club even though they live nowhere near its home stadium. Especially bizarre when so many followers of English clubs live in Indonesia or China.

There is clearly still some nostalgia for the old roots of the game. When Sir Alex Ferguson retired, there were constant references to his childhood in the shipyard district of Govan and the fact that the young Ferguson actually spent some time working in a factory. These experiences were generally felt to have instilled in him qualities which younger players might lack. The reason why Ferguson was knighted was largely because of the honour similarly bestowed on the earlier working-class Scot who had managed Manchester United, Matt Busby. David Peace’s new book on the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly has led to similar eulogies about Shankly, whose home mining village of Glenbuck on the boundary of Ayrshire and Lanarkshire has now, almost appropriately,  practically disappeared as a geographical destination.

Despite the recent reorganisation of the Scottish football league (inexplicably borrowing the inelegant division names already used in England) many flaws in the Scottish professional game remain unaddressed. The country has changed, rightly or wrongly, from the male-dominated working environment which produced so many football teams and there are now far too many professional teams for a country of 5 million people (six times as many proportionately as in England and Wales). Most of them are seriously short of money and support and clubs in the lower divisions struggle by with a tiny group of diehard fans and volunteers. The Scottish game has been dominated for too long by the two large Glasgow clubs whose support has been heavily influenced by religious tribalism outside the city as well as inside, and this has damaged the neighbouring clubs within Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Renfrewshire. A couple of particularly startling geographical inconsistencies : three senior clubs survive within 10 miles of each other in the Falkirk area, of which, during my lifetime, at least two have always struggled for success and support; East Kilbride, a town of 70,000 people, has never had a senior team,  yet about 20 smaller towns still do.

 

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Golf by the sea

 

A round of golf is a good walk spoiled, Mark Twain is said to have remarked.  Does that mean that golf by the seaside is more excusable or less? I have never played the game, but the British Open, rather like the Grand National, is a sports event which I came to through childhood television, and one which, despite a general loss of interest in sport, I have stayed close to. Whereas the Grand National is a 20 minute burst of energy and excitement, the British Open is a four-act play stretched over four days, where the events of the first few hours may have no bearing on the final dénouement, which is influenced as much by your playing environment as by the strengths and weaknesses of you and your opponents.

My interest in the annual four-act play is partly due to acquaintance with some of its theatres.  The competition takes place at one of a number of seashore-hugging links courses (currently nine : St Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Troon, Turnberry, Hoylake, Lytham St Anne’s, Birkdale and  Sandwich )  and is a rare national UK sports event in that it takes place more often in Scotland and the north of England than in the south of England.

 

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St Andrews Old Course.

 

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Some golfers playing this week’s British Open course at Muirfield.

 

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Both national and very grand

 

This is the week of the Grand National horse race meeting at Aintree, in Liverpool.

My interest in the Grand National was probably ignited as a child simply because it was a sports event which was televised regularly each year, so it was an annual festival which, like Christmas, gradually seeped into my cultural awareness. Eventually, however, I became fascinated by the particular  drama it generated.

For example, it always attracted an unusually large field of horses and riders, so that coming  fourth in this race was as significant an achievement  as coming third in others. This huge field meant that it was easier for well-fancied horses to fall, and later I became aware that it was these features which attracted the inexperienced gambler hopeful of a windfall. The 4 mile-plus length of the race, with its 20-plus fences, made it a challenging test for animal and rider, exemplified by the long flat stretch from the final jump to the finish, where the commentator’s screech and the crowd’s audible cheering held the attention of even the most casual TV viewer.

The Grand National which cemented my childhood interest is widely regarded as one of the classics: the 1967 race where many horses fell or refused at the 23rd fence on the second circuit, leaving an outsider, Foinavon, the chance to win.

Shortly afterwards came the astonishing dominance of Red Rum, who won three times and came second twice during the five years of 1973-1977, his performance seeming even more supernatural when you consider that very few other horses in modern times have ever finished even in the first four more than twice.

Elsewhere, Grand Nationals could be seen as emblems of wider national life: for example, the way the 1997 race was postponed because of an IRA bomb alert and had to be re-run,  or how the general decline in racing at the Aintree racecourse, in contrast with the southern racecourses of Epsom and Cheltenham and Ascot, seemed somehow representative of the wider north-south wealth divide which was fervidly analysed and debated during that period.

At its heart, the race is for me a great drama, where success demands, as well as some luck, a heroic effort from both human rider and animal. This heroism was certainly exemplified by the 2001 race where the going had been made so tough by heavy rain that a mere four horses managed to drag themselves around.

Although I am generally not a sports fan, I find that some events carry such weight of history and tradition and such promise of drama that they are impossible to resist. The Grand National is certainly one of those.

 

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