Monday, 22 October 2007

Plucky British losers

Politicians searching for a national motto as part of their continuing drive to turn us all into New Labour clones could do a lot worse than "We Was Robbed". Or if, like Gibbon, you prefer the decent obscurity of a dead language, Exspoliati Sumus.

The defeats of the weekend have brought out all the usual clichés about British sporting endevour. As a nation, we may not be doomed to fail, but we seem to prefer it if we do. If there was no surprise about the rugby defeat by South Africa (to me, the only remarkable thing, given past form, was that the final score was so close) then Lewis Hamilton's fatal gear-box trouble, in what should have been a fairly trouble-free coast to victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix, has struck several commentators since as oddly predestined. As Jim White noted in this morning's Daily Telegraph, "I sat down to watch... yesterday afternoon with a gathering sense of the glum."

Losing is what makes you a true Brit, after all. Just ask Tim Henman.

Watching the BBC's ten-o'clock news last night, I was struck by the tone of self-indulgent despair. Hamilton, we were told, "came away with nothing" from Sao Paolo. The same tone of misery extended to the press. "It's the Pits!" wailed The Sun today. "Hamilton double blow as his title dream dies". "Hamilton driven to despair", bemoaned The Times, although the man himself, whose level-headedness has always contrasted with the hype surrounding him, seemed anything but despairing. The perennial whinge was much in evidence, too, as hopes were briefly raised that an argument about "fuel irregularities" in two other cars might hand him the title on a technicality. Unsurprisingly, it came to nothing. We was robbed, indeed.


To cast Hamilton in the role of plucky British loser is clearly ridiculous. Earlier in the season he had some lucky breaks; towards the end the wheels came off his chariot (literally, in China). And given that the gods seemed to be against him, yesterday's performance should by rights have been hailed as the staggering achievement in actually was. Let down by his car, he dropped down to 18th place and looked certain to retire; yet he managed to claw his way back to seventh. In so doing, he finished the season a mere one point behind Kimi Raikkonen and ahead on Alonso. Quite a result, really. And of course, his earning potential remains frightening. If that is failure, I wouldn't mind some.

The worst news for Hamilton must be that not clinching the world title leaves him still black. At the very beginning of the season, to judge from the tone of the reporting, being black seemed to be the most interesting thing about him: whereas, of course, the fact that he was the only black Formula 1 driver said very little about Hamilton and a great deal (rather disgracefully) about the sport. And, needless to say, the fact of his colour became a lot less interesting once he started winning. Attention switched to his youth, his preternatural composure both behind the wheel and in front of the camera, and to the distinct possibility of his becoming the first driver ever to win the championship in his first season. That significant milestone will now forever elude him. But when he does claim the title, presumably next year, he will be hailed as the first black champion. Denied a genuine record, he will have to settle for a pretend one.

As for the rugby, as many commentators have noticed the most amazing thing was that the England team came so far.

Of course, RFU officials and other enthusiasts were hoping that another England triumph would lead to an upsurge in popularity for the game, not just as a spectator sport, but in terms of participation. For that reason alone, I am certainly glad that they lost. Rugby is, by any objective standards, an ugly, violent and almost incomprehensible game, worlds away from the subtle beauties of proper football. It is also dangerous, resulting in far more serious injuries than any comparable sport, many of them in schools. Indeed, the greatest threat to school rugby comes from the fear of litigation associated with injury. In 2001, Ramsey Elshafey was awarded £10,000 in damages for serious neck injuries he sustained during a school rugby match at the age of 17. Such incidents are fairly rare: the longer-term impact of rugby, in terms of arthritis and other chronic conditions, is much less easy to quantify yet clearly debilitating.

Still, the present government's drive to force all schoolchildren to participate in sports for at least an hour a day is likely to lead to some sort of rugby boom, if only for the sake of variety.

Quite why a government which normally takes an absurdly proscriptive attitude to "health and safety", and now wants five year olds to be weighed like bags of carrots, should be so keen on extending the possibilities for juvenile mutilation is something of a mystery. Especially since it is led by a prime minister who lost an eye playing rugby as a teenager. But where sport is concerned, rationality scarcely features. And rugby attracts far more than its share of sentimental eyewash. And, of course, snobbery.

Rugby fans are typically congratulated for their restraint and civility and contrasted with the stereotypical hooligans of soccer. Which is fair enough. But you don't have to dig too deep to find a rather ugly upper-middle-class sense of superiority, banished from almost every other sphere of public life, creeping through. Because, of course, (in England, if nowhere else) Rugby is posh. This means, I suppose, that it is played by drink-sodden ex-public-schoolboys rather than coke-snorting uber-chavs. A popular paradox is often evoked: that rugby is a thuggish game played (and watched) by gentlemen, whereas football is a gentleman's game played by thugs. Almost as though the thuggishness of the game were evidence of its moral purity.

They never say that about cricket, the most elegant and gentlemanly of all sports. Funny, that.

The popularity of rugby among the upper classes is not paradoxical, merely the accidental result of historical development. But neither that fact, nor the decency and dedication of the heroic England team, nor the good humour of the fans, should detract from the obvious truth. Rugby is rubbish.