National Portrait Gallery adds Dame Kelly Holmes to its contemporary idols

Dame Kelly joins the "heroes" in the NPG's range of celebrities.

A portrait of Dame Kelly Holmes is the latest addition to the National Portrait Gallery as part of the BP Portrait award competition. The large-scale oil painting joins such important figures in the NPG's Contemporary Collection as footballer Bobby Charlton and the UK's "favourite"  billionare, Sir Richard Branson. Glancing over the portraits in the Contemporary rooms of the NPG, I'd say that, aesthetically, they have a lot to offer. The variation in styles begins to be somewhat overwhelming, however, leaving one skimming over pieces with less initial impact, such as John Swannell's photo portrait of Princess Diana with her sons (which at first glance I presumed to be a promotional shot from a 1970s family sitcom). Excluding this happy accident of a photo, most of the paintings could belong in any wing of the Tate Modern; some are so obscure that it seems the artists just decided to paint something  in their characteristic style, the famous figures depicted being mere quirks that made the pictures noteworthy enough to get into the NPG. The portrait of Holmesis one of the exceptions in its initial straightforwardness, though she looks so remarkably sad one would guess she had had her two Olympic gold medals revoked. In fact, there is no allusion to her sporting career at all.

But it does leave us questioning the kinds of people our society chooses as role models. Why is it that we value these people? If their fame is celebrated in the form of a portrait, why are the reasons for their being celebrated so often left out of the picture? This is perhaps less surprising in the case of some of the well-known actors portrayed, such as Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren. Perhaps they've reached the stage when they're famous for being famous, like the disreputable Kardashians or the wretched Jade Goody? We see faces such as those of Sir Roy Calne, surgeon extraordinaire, scientist Robert Winston and Body Shop founder and human rights activist Dame Anita Roddick, who have contributed to society in a slightly more productive way. But they are a lonely few in a sea of tabloid-worthy celebrities.

Kelly Holmes and J K Rowling are Orwellian Big Brothers,  inspiration to the proles to make something, anything, of their lives. Congratulations to Dame Kelly for joining the ranks of 16th-century kings and 20th-century singers. Let's hope it motivates the lazy nobodies to get out and climb the ladder so high they're forced to cover their faces in public.

Dame Kelly's portrait will appear alongside Britain's favourite celebrities, including the Queen. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages
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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit