As any fule no (reference Nigel Molesworth, the fictitious character invented by Geoffrey Willians, first appearance in Down With Skool (1953), illustrations by Ronald Searle of St Trinians fame, public recitations of which by our deputy headmaster were a staple of Saturday afternoons from about the age of eleven at my boarding prep school), since the beginning of the month the sports pages have been full of reports and appreciations upon the latest doings – and indeed entire careers to date – of two great British sportsmen – athlete Sir Mo Farah and professional cyclist Chris Froome.
It would be fair to state that, despite their outstanding feats – Froome recently became a four-time winner of the Tour de France and added to that victory in the 2017 Vuelta de España, thus becoming only the third cyclist in history to win both in the same year, whilst Farah has just retired from the track after the most-decorated athletics career in British history, highlights being his ‘double victories’ at 5,000 and 10,000 metres not only at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics but also the 2013, 2015 and 2017 World Championships – neither superstar has ever quite gained the ‘crossover’ mainstream public adulation that some supporters, and indeed many leading journalists, believe ought by now to have been theirs.
Here’s a link to an article on the topic by Sean Ingle that appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN
In my view Mr Ingle racks up more than a basic ‘pass’ in terms of marks awarded for detailing the complexities of the issue, but as a Rust columnist – free from the requirement to back up my observations with supporting factual evidence, as detractors might complain – I can offer a few blunt comments that encapsulate the reasons why Messrs Froome and Farah have ‘lost out’ in terms of achieving true British ‘national treasure’ status in the style of illustrious predecessors such as AP McCoy, Henry Cooper, Daley Thompson, Mary Rand and Red Rum … or even B-Lister rank in said category, along with the likes of Gary Lineker, Steve Cram, Rebecca Adlington, Paula Radcliffe, Frank Bruno, Lucinda Green and Sir Bobby Charlton.
My first comment comes under the heading ‘performance-enhancing drugs’.
To be honest I don’t know the detailed ins and outs of Messrs Froome and Farah’s personal relationship with these babies – and for present purposes I am prepared to accept in principle, until proven otherwise, that there are none at all – but I know enough of the alleged ‘connection by association’ of cycling’s Team Sky (in Froome’s case) and athletics coach Alberto Salazar (in Farah’s) – to appreciate, as a sports fan and ‘ordinary punter’, that the unedifying ‘whiff’ of suspicion still surrounds, and therefore taints, their splendid achievements.
Again here I can discard the niceties and cut straight to the chase.
For good or ill, since my sports-following fanaticism does not often extend to professional road cycling and thus having little knowledge of what I’m talking about, I can tend to be freer and more outrageous with my thrusts that those whose profession is journalism, especially of the cycling specialist variety.
But here’s the thing. Cycling racing requires of the individual a number of basic attributes including at the very least limitless stamina, a lithe and lean body type with a vast power-to-weight ratio, and excessive mental strength, focus and determination.
It also requires a team comprised of a range of supporting riders, with different ranks and roles, whose ultimate goal and job it is not only to protect the ‘number one’ rider from any number of external (e.g. spectator, weather, state of the roads) and ‘opposing team’ (e.g. surprise attacking breakaway moves and other tactical ruses) dangers but hopefully deliver said main man to the finishing line both intact and in first place.
Some – as a semi-detached observer I’d say much – of what goes on during the daily grind of a Tour de France (or equivalent) is sufficiently esoteric as to be bordering upon the unfathomable to the television viewer, which is why (as with cricket, another complicated and slightly eccentric sport) the explanations and general chit-chat provided by the commentators and on/off-screen pundits is so helpful and indeed essential to proper enjoyment and understanding of what exactly is going on and why.
Meanwhile, the job of any ‘main man in the team’ like Froome is simply to stay out of trouble, cover any threatening move made by his individual or team rivals, and just keep going for the 21 or so stages it takes to get to the finish. And then it’s all decided on the penultimate stage – following which the last day is a tootle around some big city or another with none of the cyclists – well, save perhaps the sprinters, another weird sub-species – having a shoot-out down a main boulevard in order to entertain the crowds.
And, of course, the mainstream spectator is wondering why the hell – as you’d expect with any normal race contest – there isn’t a final climax on the last day, finishing with the winner crossing the line first after a last desperate effort to fend off his challengers. Instead, in cycling, they pedal round the last-day circuit(s) no faster than I could go.
By the same token, Mo Farah’s career and ‘position’ in British folklore is diminished because – to be frank – firstly, he has posted so few world records and, secondly, yes he always wins, but it is always via a last lap finish in which he pulls away from his chasing pursuers seemingly only ever in the last 100 metres with winning margins somewhere between ten and forty metres.
Farah just wins races. He doesn’t care whether a 5,000 metres (twelve and a half laps) clash unfolds as a gentle jog for the first twelve, just as long as he wins the last half lap.
Where are the thrilling races in which he attempts yet another world record?
To all intents and purposes there aren’t any, folks.
My third and final comment relates to human nature and personality.
To achieve bona fide British sporting national treasure status, you need more than just dedication and excellence on the track, road or field of play. You also require a certain ‘warm, inclusive’ character, preferably outgoing as well, though perhaps the last of these isn’t absolutely essential.
Chris Froome looks and sounds like a cycling nerd with a personality bypass. He may be a veritable bundle of fun and japes at home with his family, or when out with his mates, but he ‘comes across’ in public (which is the only time I see him) as dull, dull, dull.
At least the now-somewhat-discredited Sir Bradley Wiggins had a mod haircut, musician Paul Weller as a pal and a certain ‘cool – you can all bugger off’ attitude when doing his ‘day job’. His supposed national treasure status has slipped latterly, of course, due partly to the concerns over his ‘drugs exemption’ episode just before his famous Tour de France win and partly to his (non-cycling) attempts to broaden his appeal via his Skoda car advert and his ludicrous – but mercifully short – participation in ITV’s snow sports reality TV competition The Jump.
Similarly Mo Farah’s cause has not been helped by his attempts to broaden his appeal (and increase his income) by non-sporting activities.
True, he – or someone advising him – got off to a brilliant marketing start by coming up with the ‘Mobot’ (hand on head) gesture after every race … which had an echo of Usain Bolt’s trademark ‘lightning bolt’ or ‘To Di World’ equivalent about it.
However, Farah’s repeated complaining, surly, mealy-mouthed, ‘ignore it and it will go away’, whingeing responses to reporters’ questions about his association with Alberto Salazar (which continue to this day) have permanently damaged him.
Furthermore, I’ve no doubt that he made a substantial amount of money from his repeated advertisements for Quorn – the meat substitute which tastes like cardboard – but inevitably these have also prompted a degree of derision.
The truth is that Froome and Farah both lack that empathetic personality that national treasure status requires. Nothing they can do about and they’re not alone. Sir Andy Murray will never quite achieve it – despite having as great a sporting claim as Froome and Farah – because his dour, down in the mouth persona tells against him.
Tough luck, lads – but you cannot fight Nature.