A quick flick through the sports pages of the London Evening Standard had me reaching for the sick bowl this week.
No, I hadn’t cast my eyes over the odious David Mellor’s pictorial by-line for more than two seconds or read yet another obsessive ‘I hate Arsenal’ rant by Matthew Norman or Mick Dennis. No, this was far more worrying.
I had opened the inside back page to be greeted by a full page, colour collage of our six Olympic Gold medallists kissing, biting and grasping their gold medals with pride. Don’t get me wrong, their performances filled me with immense pride. But while I drunkenly punched the air with delight last Friday as Steve Redgrave crossed the line and managed a broad grin through my hangover the following day as Denise Lewis took the Heptathlon title, surely this insular, self-appreciating, backslapping nonsense in the media is going some way over the top.
And that was before I’d even read the accompanying editorial. I was informed that we should stand proud, that Britain is, indeed, Great again in world athletics and that we’ve emerged out of the dark shadows which blighted our performances four year earlier.
True, we’ve won five more gold medals than that pitiful performance in Atlanta but if the press could take off their rose-tinted specs for just one moment, they’d see we’ve won just six golds for goodness sake, hardly a major achievement when we look at the greater picture.
Take a glance at the countries above us in the standings and we find Holland, a county no bigger in size than Wales and Italy, a country comparable in terms of size and population to our own. The Italians have reached double figures in terms of gold, while the Dutch have eight to their name. Moving further up the medal table we have Romania, yes them of crumbling economy and even more decrepit facilities and Australia who, although have the advantage of home support, have a population to pick from no bigger than London. These facts alone put our ‘achievements’ into some kind of context.
And as we get swept up in the euphoria that is bleated out by Sue Barker, John Inverdale et al, the emphatic failures, which occur on a daily basis, are glossed over. What happened to our 100 metres sprinters? Why is there no middle distance competitor capable of reaching a final? Hurdlers? 400 metres runners? And in a country that falls under a deluge of water almost daily, why are we so poor in the pool? Nobody seems to care because we’ve won six gold medals. Well, that’s all right then.
And before I’m accused of missing the point and that these successes will give the kids of tomorrow the inspiration to follow suit, let’s look again.
The majority of winners have come from the minority sports: rowing, cycling, shooting. Access to these sports is limited. Let’s not fool ourselves – most people don’t have any interest in them either, except during the Olympics.
Granted, Denise Lewis and Jonathan Edwards can be the inspiration for any budding young athlete but two role models from an entire nation will hardly fill those anxious bods from within the Sports Council with much optimism.
Hopefully they realise that there is plenty more work to be done before we can even consider ourselves to be half as good as the media believe we are. If not, those images of Atlanta will be replicated in Athens in four years’ time.