Forget sportsmanship – it’s all about winning

Andy Murray was too aggressive, surly, hairy and charmless for British sports writers. They prefer polite losers like Tim Henman.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Forget the credit crunch; I’m more concerned about the superlative crunch. Sports writers have been struggling all week to find superlatives to describe the Wimbledon men’s final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

Great sporting events often have this effect on journalists. What do you say when you’ve just witnessed such an electrifying Goliath vs Goliath contest? L’Equipe called it ‘one of the most extraordinary tennis matches of the open era’. But why confine ourselves to the open era? ‘One of the greatest tennis matches ever played’, gushed the New York Times. Just one of the greatest? Are you sure? The Herald upped the bid. ‘This was the greatest tennis match of all time’, it declared.

The greatest match of all time. How do you better that? At this point we reach a superlative threshold. Words can’t take us any further. Broadcast journalists can at least deploy pitch, tone and volume when they hit the superlative glass ceiling. Murray Walker’s screams get even more high-pitched. Latin American football commentators bellow ‘Go-o-o-o-o-oal!!!’ for as long as their lung capacity allows. But the poor wordsmiths have to fish from the finite pool of superlatives. You could, as is the journalistic fashion these days, sex up your superlative with a spicy adverb. So, the ‘most exciting match’ becomes ‘the most buttock-clenchingly exciting über-match’. But eventually you’ll be all adverbed out.

And the purpose of this extended musing on the superlative crisis that is now facing the tennis world? Well, the main point was to put last week’s brief flowering of Murraymania into some perspective. Yes, we got a bit excited over Andy Murray’s five-set victory over Richard Gasquet. But ask yourselves this: will an Andy Murray game ever be described as ‘the greatest game of tennis ever’? No, didn’t think so. ‘Quite exciting’ maybe. ‘Most thrilling game involving someone from Dunblane’ possibly. But the ‘greatest’ implies not just high drama but a level of technical quality and mental steel that, right now, seems beyond Andy Murray. He may be a Top 10 player but, after Sunday, the gulf between the top two and the rest suddenly seems unbridgeable.

Murray did at least give us a ‘plucky British quarter-final loser’ story and for that I guess we should be grateful. There was genuine concern that the summer would yield no heroic British failures over whom we could briefly wet our collective knickers. England had blown qualification for Euro 2008 and the prospects of British athletes winning gold in Beijing doesn’t look great. We were mentally gearing ourselves up to pretending that a Brit podium finish in an obscure Olympic event – synchronised cycling or somesuch – represents sporting success.

Murray’s other significant achievement was to start to win the affections of British tennis fans (I say ‘start’ because he still has some way to go). He’s our only world-class tennis player but there’s something about the boy that has stopped the Wimbledon crowd warming to him. The Home Counties’ ultras, whose crie de guerre ‘Come on Tim’ once echoed around the Queen’s Club, were not all shouting for Murray when he played Nadal in the quarter-finals. As the two players walked onto court at the start of the match, the ovation for the Spanish player was striking. ‘The round of applause was extraordinary considering I was playing against their player’, Nadal said afterwards.

Liz Hunt, writing in the Daily Telegraph, captured the mood of the anti-Murray camp. ‘Murray is too aggressive, too surly, too focused, too hairy and utterly charmless’, she wrote. ‘When he was a truculent but talented teenager, he got away with it – not now.’ (1) Amanda Platell in the Daily Mail found Murray’s expressive celebrations unpalatable. ‘It was rage; pure unadulterated rage’, wrote the former Tory spindoctor. ‘Murray’s antics on Centre Court on Monday epitomised the values not of one of our great national traditions, but of yob Britain. And the message it sends out is that you can only succeed if you behave like a wild animal.’ (2)

Tim, of course, was never like that. He didn’t do rage or passion. As Liz Hunt put it: ‘Tim rarely let his feelings show, never indulged in bellowing histrionics and restricted himself to the occasional low-level clenched fist when he was pleased with himself.’ The Wimbledon crowd loved Tim because they recognised him as one of their own. He was the nice, clean-cut, well-mannered stockbroker-fodder whom you’d happily let your daughter marry. He might have been bland. He might have choked in the big games. But that didn’t matter. The important thing was that Tim was polite. And that’s all that really counted.

It’s in our contrasting attitudes to Murray and Henman that we can see one of the principal defects of British sporting culture. In short, we’re more concerned about how sportsmen conduct themselves than whether they succeed. Of course, we love champions who are also charming and gracious like Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. But winners aren’t always like that. Often they are moody, obsessive and angry. Their single-minded drive to succeed can be far greater than their dinner-party charm.

Why do the British value sportsmanship more than the will to win? I think it’s a hangover from the Victorian era in which sport was seen as a civilising force, an instrument of moral edification. The nineteenth-century toffs who codified the rules of modern sports resisted professionalisation because they feared that a ‘win at all costs’ mentality would undermine sport’s moral power. This sniffy anachronistic belief in the moralising influence of sport finds echoes in today’s demands for sports stars to act as role models. It also helps to explain why we probably won’t see a British player win Wimbledon.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Why Andy Murray will never learn to love all, Telegraph, 2 July 2008

(2) Great win Andy. Pity about the yobbery, Daily Mail, 2 July 2008

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Topics Politics


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