The daft sentimentality of the British sports fan

Why do the British love a charismatic loser so much?

We Brits have a very strange attitude to our sporting heroes. Andy Murray’s face doesn’t fit with the British public - and not just because it rarely breaks into a smile. Murray threw us all last week because he succeeded in reaching the Wimbledon final. Not through fluke or guile or an improbable defiance of the odds. He succeeded simply by being brilliant at what he does. Which, according to the public, was a little bit dull and annoying. I hosted a phone in on a national sports radio station straight after the semi final last Friday where 90 per cent of callers said they’d be supporting Roger Federer in the final. Why? “Murray’s a bit miserable and scruffy” was the general response.

This is a quintessential characteristic of the British sports fans. We are immersed in sentiment, preoccupied with personality and yearn less for cold, efficient victory than we do for the dramatic romance of defeat.

Every British sports fan is forever waiting for that Gazza moment: the emergence of a maverick figure, rendered great by instinctive talent not methodical coaching, and driven by volatile emotion not clear-eyed will to win.  But what really immortalized Gazza was that he often wore comedy fake breasts and sometimes cried. The images of him doing so were captured forever and held dear to every football fan’s hearts. The loveable fool, the genius man-child, the wide-eyed idiot savant, stealing emotional collapse from the jaws of a glorious triumph. This is the sporting narrative that has obsessed the British public ever since.

But the truth is that Gazza was a failure. He showed glimpses of what he might have become back in 1990 but, from the moment he burst out in tears that night in Turin, he never came close to fulfilling his potential ever again. That’s why he is loved and romantiscsied so much. He could have been like his German counterpart that night, Lothar Mattahus, who went on to lift the World Cup before triumphing in a succession of other tournaments for club and country. He was not cheeky, daft, charismatic or given to stumbling drunk out of kebab shops in full view of the paps. And that was no coincidence either. He was a winner, so he went to bed early and trained hard every day. That kind of application doesn’t play with the British public the way it does with the Germans. Perhaps it’s because the British public see something slightly vulgar in winning.

We love charismatic losers like Gazza, Jimmy White, Alex Higgins, George Best and Frank Bruno. The rogues and chancers who blew their talent – or just weren’t quite that good enough. The real winners we have produced, from Steve Davis to Linford Christie to Lewis Hamilton to Lennox Lewis, have been deemed too dull and robotic to fully qualify for our affections.

We like our sporting icons to be ‘human.’ That is to say we like them to be flawed, ordinary, dumb and often drunk. Perhaps it was possible to be ‘human’ and successful a few decades ago, when international footballers could turn up five minutes before kick off smoking a fag with a fried breakfast inside of them and still bag a hat trick. But sport is more serious than that nowadays. There will never be another Gazza because someone like him would be lucky to be playing in the higher divisions of non-league football nowadays. Being ‘human’ and being successful are now mutually exclusive characteristics.

We Brits regard sport as a soap opera: everything must be richly infused with sentimentality and melodrama. According to the outraged critics who condemned Stuart Pearce over the matter, David Beckham should have been part of the Team GB not because he was one of the best British footballers available but because he was an icon, a patriot and a man who addressed television interviewers with an appealingly boyish politeness. This is the X Factor generation, who want their sports stars like their talent show contestants: either tragic, or comic, or both  - and with a back story that can be neatly encapsulated in a ninety second montage to the accompaniment of a Coldplay track.

But of course, Andy Murray should not have to wear fake breasts, eat a kebab or perform hilarious impressions of other tennis stars in order to convince us he is human. The ins and outs of his character shouldn’t be here nor there to any of us who love sport for what it is: a contest of physical prowess. Unfortunately, too many Brits regard a serious demeanor to be alienating and objectionable rather than an admirable sign of a winning mentality. Yes, Olympic Gold Medals are all very well for other countries. But over here, nothing quite matches up to the dubious prestige of the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.

Sam Delaney writes for The Guardian and is a host on talkSPORT. Follow him on Twitter @delaneyman


Andy Murray: good at tennis, but "a bit miserable and scruffy" for our tastes. Photograph: Getty Images

Sam Delaney also writes for The Guardian, The Big Issue and numerous others.  He is the author of two books: ‘Get Smashed – The Story Of The Men Who Made The Ads That Changed Our Lives’ and ‘Night Of The Living Dad.’ He has written and presented documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4 and is a host on talkSPORT radio.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.