A nation of winners?

From tennis to motor racing, individual Brits are triumphant. But collectively, winning still comes second best.

Duleep Allirajah

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Are the British the new Australians? Have we been transformed from a nation of sporting losers into thoroughbred champions?

This time last year I was on a panel at the annual Battle of Ideas festival debating whether the British were a nation of sporting chumps and penalty chokers. Last year it seemed that all the sporting gods had turned against us. England’s footballers had failed to qualify for Euro 2008. The cricketers had surrendered the Ashes in abject fashion and flopped in the one-day World Cup. Lewis Hamilton had blown the Formula One drivers’ title. The England rugby union team had just been beaten by South Africa in the World Cup Final. And the less said about the Scots or the Welsh, the better.

Plucky losers, also-rans, serial bottlers. That’s us. Or at least that’s who we used to be. Now look at us. Britain’s sporting fortunes have been revived in the past 12 months. Last week our Olympians paraded through London after their biggest medal haul since 1908. England’s national football team, thanks to Fabio Capello’s austere WAG-free regime, have been rejuvenated and sit astride their World Cup qualifying group after four consecutive wins, including the 4-1 trouncing of Croatia in Zagreb. Andy Murray has reached his first tennis Grand Slam final and is currently ranked fourth in the world. And Lewis Hamilton leads the F1 drivers’ table with one race to go. Winners, I tell you. Natural born gold medallists.

Well, actually neither stereotype is true. The British were never genetically predisposed to losing any more than the Aussies were born to win. Winning is a habit you acquire, not something in your blood. My argument was not that the Brits were natural losers but that our contemporary therapeutic culture wasn’t conducive to instilling a winning mentality. And I still think that’s the case. Take tennis, for example. One of the reasons that the French produce so many world-class tennis players is that they have far more juniors playing competitive tennis. As LTA chief executive Roger Draper has said: ‘We’ve only got 10,000 juniors and they’ve got 80,000, and that’s why we’ve got one or two in the top 100 and they’ve got eight or nine.’

Why aren’t there more British juniors playing competitively? Well part of the reason is that, as parents, we’re reluctant to push our children too much or expose them to competition at too tender an age. We think they’re too fragile. We worry that their self-esteem might get damaged. Andy Murray is attracting rave reviews right now, but he’s the exception. This dearth of British talent was underlined by Britain’s recent relegation from the Davis Cup world group.

It’s not that Britain is incapable of producing sporting champions. Olympic gold medallists like Rebecca Adlington or Chris Hoy show that Touchy-Feely Britannia is still capable of producing sportsmen and women who are prepared to monkishly dedicate their lives to training; who are willing to sacrifice a normal life in the pursuit of sporting excellence. But Team GB’s overall medal haul at Beijing masked underperformance in key events, particularly in athletics where Christine Ohuruogo was Britain’s lone gold medallist. UK Athletics director Dave Collins paid the price for a disappointing track-and-field medal return and was replaced by Dutchman Charles van Commenee.

If you look at the events in which Team GB performed best – cycling, sailing and rowing – it’s clear that British success was the product of targeted lottery funding. These are sports where facilities and investment can make a difference. And, let’s face it: these are also sports which are the preserve of the more affluent nations.

That’s not to say that lottery funding for middle-class sports was the only explanation. UK Athletics also had lottery money pumped in. The difference was that in a sport like cycling, for example, there was not only high-tech kit and meticulous, scientific preparation, but, more importantly, a winning culture forged amongst a tight-knit team of elite cyclists. As Peter Keen, British Cycling’s former performance director, has explained: ‘There is some magic in the cycling programme. We managed to go beyond the individual and generate a critical mass of people pulling in the same direction…Yes, the funding was a huge help. But it takes more than money. Success isn’t a right – you have to strive for it.’ (1) Lottery funding was a prerequisite of Olympic success but not a guarantee.

Why did Lottery funding work for cycling but not athletics? Some, like Welsh discus thrower Philippa Roles, believe that British athletes were more interested in money. ‘There was no love for the sport, only money’, complained Roles. ‘They were even talking about the next party they were going to and what they could get out of that. I’m in athletics because I love the sport and see what I can achieve for myself. But I could see nothing but greed around me.’ Another more plausible explanation is that lottery funding won’t buy the same competitive advantage in athletics that it does in cycling or rowing.

One sport that doesn’t need lottery funding is football. English football is currently on a high. Premiership teams dominate the Champions League and, under Capello’s stewardship, the national English team has regained its swagger. But that doesn’t make us world beaters. We’re effectively back to where we were under Sven: successfully negotiating the banana skins of a qualifying group. With the exception of Theo Walcott, this is pretty much the same group of players who were performing like a pub team under Steve McClaren. The difference is confidence. The 4-1 victory in Zagreb has made us believe again. But, while the mental block has been lifted, it’s still way too early to start planning any open-top bus parades.

British sporting culture today is much the same as it was 12 months ago. There are winners and there are losers. There are some who excel and some who choke. More importantly, there are still powerful cultural barriers which hinder the development of a winning mentality. We still tend to dish out gongs far too cheaply whenever we win something. We still have too many open-top bus parades. We still demonise pushy parents who drive their children too hard. We are still more concerned about encouraging respect rather than instilling a win-at-all-costs mentality. We still prefer a gracious loser to an arrogant winner. We love a victory celebration but we still haven’t created a winning culture.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist. He is speaking about cricket and football chanting at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) How GB cycling went from tragic to magic, BBC Sport, 14 August 2008

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