A nation of winners? Not yet

Great Britain has suddenly got a fine roster of sporting champions, but the pool of great talent is still pretty shallow.

Duleep Allirajah

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What’s going on? The sporting world order has been turned on its head. Britain is no longer a nation of plucky losers, hapless also-rans and serial chokers. We’ve acquired the winning habit. Last summer, we revelled in Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory, Andy Murray’s US Open title and, of course, that glorious Olympic gold rush. This year, the Brits are piling up the silverware again. Andy Murray, Justin Rose, Chris Froome, the England cricket team: our sports stars are on a roll. We’ve been transformed from chumps to champs.

Are we Aussies in disguise? And have the Australians become infected by the British disease of sporting mediocrity? That famous Aussie winning mentality certainly seems to have gone AWOL. At London 2012, the Aussies were tenth in the medal table with seven gold medals compared to Team GB’s glittering haul of 29. It’s a similar story in cricket: total disarray. Having sacked coach Mickey Arthur on the eve of the Ashes, the series looks as good as over after defeats in the first two tests. Michael Clarke’s men have now lost six test matches on the spin. The aura of invincibility has given way to an aura of ineptitude. This is possibly the most mediocre Australian cricket team in living memory. It’s an Aussieshambles.

The recent spate of British sporting successes has prompted a re-examination of our national sporting character. We once regard sporting mediocrity as a national trait: 30 years of hurt and all that. But pessimism has now been replaced by self-belief. Tim Adams, writing in the Observer, hailed our ‘national conversion from doubt to faith’. He recounts the moment, during Andy Murray’s comeback from two sets down against Fernando Verdasco in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, that he realised that the Brits were no longer born to lose: ‘Forty-five years of inbuilt resignation – born out of assuming the homegrown player or team would eventually locate a novel means of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, or explore a mental frailty that had never been too far from the surface, or be the victim of a piece of ill luck or injustice and crumble, heroically or limply, at the last – was replaced by a strangely un-British confidence.’

Simon Barnes of The Times believes that this new winning culture is a product of two factors: firstly, the judicious use of Lottery funding and secondly, a more ‘magical’ process. As Barnes described it: ‘The more mysterious process is the contagious touch of gold. It’s about the way that one success brings about another. If it’s OK for one Brit to win then it’s OK for me.’

Look, I really don’t wish to piss on Britain’s open-top bus parade, but we need a bit of perspective here. I’m delighted that finally we have something to cheer about. It’s about time we rewrote the self-loathing narrative of British sporting failure. It’s great that we’re whopping the Aussies’ sorry backsides in the Ashes. I’m no patriot, but isn’t it sweet to see those Union flags fluttering on the Champs-Élysées? And as for Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory – well, it has to rank as one the greatest British sporting triumphs of all time. But, while winning is clearly A Good Thing, we shouldn’t get carried away.

Let’s take the cricket, for example. England are clearly better than Australia. But walloping a weak Australia side is no great achievement. As former Aussie paceman Glenn McGrath put it: ‘England aren’t a bad team but Australia are making them look very good.’

Then there’s British tennis. Andy Murray is a genuine champion, but where is the ‘contagious touch of gold’? Murray is the only British man in the ATP top 100. Britain’s number two, James Ward is at number 260 in the ATP rankings. The fact is that there is simply no Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) production-line of British talent. Andy Murray was developed outside the LTA system, hothoused in the Sánchez-Casal academy in Barcelona from the age of 15. Heather Watson and Laura Robson, the only two British women in the top 100, weren’t entirely ‘made in Britain’ either. Robson was born in Melbourne to Australian parents while Watson trained at the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida from the age of 12.

The British have excelled in elitist sports like sailing, equestrianism and rowing where a combination of private means and Lottery funding has given our elite athletes a competitive advantage, enabling them to devote themselves to their sport on a full-time basis. Cycling is probably the shining example of a sport in which the British have cultivated a winning ethos. Here too, Lottery funding played a crucial part, enabling David Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ to be realised through meticulous attention to detail and the application of cutting-edge sports science. But while the judicious use of Lottery funding enabled our cyclists to become world beaters, it hasn’t delivered success elsewhere. It’s easy to forget that the Team GB’s swimmers, so successful in Beijing, flopped badly in London. Moreover, while Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and Greg Rutherford struck gold, the British athletics team failed to meet performance director Charles van Commenee’s target of eight medals at London 2012.

And then, of course, there’s football. It’s the elephant in the room. All this talk of winning conveniently ignores the fact that we continue to underperform in our national game. The ghosts of failed penalty shoot-outs still haunt our sporting psyche. We still flop at the big tournaments. We still produce athletes rather than artists. It’s all very well excelling at sports like cricket or rugby that most of the world isn’t interested in. This new-found winning culture doesn’t seem to have infected our footballers. As Gary Lineker so aptly put it, we’re still in the ‘dark ages’ when it comes to the technical development of young players.

By all means let’s celebrate British sporting success. A winning mentality has been cultivated in certain sports, but it certainly hasn’t been hardwired into our national DNA. Last week, the Education Select Committee criticised the government’s promotion of competitive sport in schools because ‘it can also deter many young people from taking part in sport at all’. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, which gave evidence to the committee, claimed that girls are put off physical activity as a result of the emphasis on competition. A nation of sporting winners? It’s still work in progress, I’m afraid.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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