Like I suspect all who regard themselves as avid sports-followers, whilst I have my favourites and my ‘avoids’ – most of them originally chosen from the array I played (or didn’t) in my schoolboy youth – if push should come to shove of a free afternoon in which to indulge myself, I’ll watch virtually anything that the box in the corner of the room can offer.
Except perhaps darts, angling, WWE wrestling and snooker or pool … and I’ll leave my readers to work out for themselves why I don’t classify them as proper sports and thus unworthy of my attention.
My reflections this morning are upon just three sports – rugby, cycling and athletics – as they presented themselves to me over the weekend.
The first, and this inevitably fingers me as a child of the 1950s to 1970s (if a childhood can be said to last that long), is a comment upon performance of the manager of the recently-completed British and Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zealand, John Spencer.
I should begin by confessing that my knowledge of such things comes largely through my friendship with someone vaguely ‘in the know’ with connections to the Rugby Football Union.
It explains why I am aware that there was a body of general surprise and disappointment when Spencer – currently also RFU President, a two year, largely ceremonial, post – was announced as the Lions manager back in 2014. Most of this angst was directed at his age (he’ll be seventy this August) and the fact that he had a reputation for being one of those stalwart but fuddy-duddy RFU blazer-wearing types of whom Will Carling once famously uttered public words in which they and flatulence appeared in close proximity.
In short, the insinuation was that Spencer was a bit out of touch in the heady, nuts-and-bolts, commercialised and media-savvy world of modern rugby union and therefore potentially going to be a liability to the Lions. Furthermore, the word was that he’d had a series of health issues in recent years and his stamina might be suspect.
Certainly, on the one occasion I was present, in 2016 when he made a short impromptu speech before a preview showing of a documentary fronted by Lewis Moody on the rugby internationals who died in WW1, he appeared frail and relatively unimpressive in his delivery.
He also hit the headlines for the wrong reasons during the autumn international period of 2016 when he made an inappropriate comment about Princess Charlene of Monaco – see here, in the – DAILY MAIL
Nevertheless, it seems to me indisputable that he has performed consistently well on the Lions tour of New Zealand, probably the toughest place to tour in the world because of the culture and media pressure.
Being on any sports touring management team is almost as difficult as being a player – meeting streams of dignitaries, schoolchildren and charity heads, making endless promotional visits and speeches, and in his recent case just generally trying to give the impression that both you and your squad are all ‘good eggs’ and worthy members of the rugby ‘band of brothers’ when (this is no direct criticism of the Kiwis) last season the giant All Blacks ‘enforcer’ lock Brodie Retallick was unable to name more than two current England players in one of his interviews. Down in NZ, of course, few people follow European or Northern Hemisphere rugby.
Spencer has hit the headlines again after the third and final Test – giving a spirited defence of the Lions concept and warning World Rugby that it will ignore the importance of preserving this unique sporting institution as its own peril and at the risk of letting the tail (the self-interested ‘money, first and last’ Aviva Premiership clubs and similar) wag the rugby union dog.
He was one of my youthful heroes as his rugby career encompassed Cambridge University and three Varsity Match appearances, club rugby for Headingley and, of course, England (14 caps and two tries) and the British and Irish Lions (1971 tour to New Zealand, playing 10 matches but no Tests).
Somehow they represented the nearest thing that England could offer to glamour and excitement in the era of Welsh domination of UK rugby in the late Sixties and Seventies.
My second sports topic is the coverage of professional tour cycling – currently, of course, that of the annual Tour de France.
Despite all GB’s success in the Olympics in recent times – and that of Bradley Wiggins and, of course the multi-wins of Chris Froome in the Tour de France itself – cycling has never quite made the crossover into a mainstream following.
A primary reason for this is that, unlike in countries like Belgium and France, in Britain cycling remains a minority sport, possibly to a degree because of its continuing suspected ‘relationship’ with drugs use and underhand skullduggery within of elite team managements, justified or not.
Now well into the ‘meat’ of the 2017 Tour de France schedule, I couldn’t help noticing that – in terms of UK media reporting generally, whether during segments of news whether general current affairs or sports-specific – the ‘editorial’ view of cycling remained centred less on the latest stage results, or indeed any changes in overall rider positions, than exclusively upon the occasional instances (if any) of big, dramatic pile-ups and crashes, preferably those causing limb breaks and withdrawals from the competition.
My third and last weekend observation was a pithy one upon the BBC’s coverage of the ‘Anniversary Games’ held at the London Stadium yesterday. I had this playing on the television as I busied myself at my computer for an hour or so and only watched it attentively during the 3,000 metres race won by Olympic legend Mo Farah.
Perhaps it was my general cynicism about track & field generally, or my concerns about Mo Farah, or just the fact that the venerable Brendan Foster – now shortly to retire from his lengthy and distinguished media/punditry career – was commentating, but I found the whole thing a deeply disappointing and unsatisfactory experience.
It doesn’t matter how many Olympic golds or World titles Mo Farah has won over the years – at one point Foster tagged him as not just Britain’s greatest-ever athlete, but Britain’s greatest-ever sportsman – when you’re watching maybe eighteen or twenty 3,000 metres runners galloping around an athletics track with the cameras, the commentator – and actually your own expectations – concentrated solely upon a single athlete it doesn’t say a great deal for the sport generally. Especially since, as far as I could tell from the TV coverage, the Stadium concerned was only about 25% full.
And to listen to Brendan Foster deploying every cliché in the athletic lexicon to describe how at every moment in the race from the gun Mo Farah (so great was he) was coolly cruising and controlling everyone and everything without the slightest effort was way over the top in my view. He managed to embark upon yet another Farah cod-eulogy about a lap and a half from the end of the race of such extreme hyperbole and length that, sitting on my sofa at home, I began to feel as if I was watching a Monty Python sketch.
Two reactions occurred to me afterwards.
Firstly, I am always conscious when watching any track event that every participant is only ever one stumble, or barge, or inadvertent unbalance, from complete disaster.
And secondly – if it is truly the case that Mo Farah is so magnificently superior to every other athlete that ever might line up against him in a race – can someone please explain to me why it is that the BBC and Brendan Foster are bothering to spend so much of the BBC’s time, effort and ‘licence fee’ sports rights budget upon covering such a slam-dunk foregone conclusion … and indeed, come to that, closer to home, why the hell am I choosing to watch it?