Sport - Robert Winder on the Big Brotherisation of sport

It is the Big Brotherisation of tennis and other games: the question is not whether the players are

As Wimbledon spattered to its damp climax, the idea that the All England Club should install a roof was given its usual thorough airing. In one sense, the club's obstinate failure to build one is a godsend: it gives the pundits something to talk about during the rain breaks. And who could object to any proposal that would shut out the endless drizzle and - worse - the dispiriting grey skies that stub out our summers? It isn't just Wimbledon that needs a roof: it's the entire British Isles.

But would we really be happy to watch a tournament being played in a kitsch imitation of summer? The sun (sponsored by Osram) would beat down through climate-controlled air, casting sharp shadows on perma-fast, grass-style matting. Everything would be on time, and it would all be absolutely fabulous - except for one small thing. It wouldn't be a tennis court: it would be a television studio. And this might have alarming consequences because there is already a dismaying tendency to see Wimbledon not as a sporting tussle but as a popularity contest.

We could call it the Big Brotherisation of sport, and it was thoroughly in evidence during Wimbledon fortnight. The issue is not which player prevails but which player tickles our Pop Idol tastebuds. The key criterion is not how good they are but whether we like them or not. Inevitably, it was Tim Henman, the first decent British tennis player most of us have seen, who bore the brunt of this sentimental assault. "If you choke now," screamed one tabloid, "we'll never forgive you!" Even supposedly serious newspapers printed their "Ten reasons to boo Tim" items, most of which were variations on the idea that he was, infuriatingly, not a rock star. I found myself half-hoping he'd throw in the green towel and default, as a protest against this kind of trashy jeer-leading.

It was even worse with the Williams sisters, one of the most spectacular stories in modern sport. A couple of black sisters from the wrong side of the tracks resolve to take on the white middle-class elite at its own game and end up, through effort and application, but also by "reaching for the stars" and "living out their dream", as the two best players in the whole goddamn world. It is pure Disney, and very startling. But the response hardly ever rose above the level of asking whether, if we had a vote, they would be kicked out of the Wimbledon House before the wilful temptress Anna K. As if whether we like them has anything at all to do with it.

Sport has been heading this way for a long time. In making a big commercial pitch to people who don't really like sport, in flogging itself as "entertainment" and puffing up its so-called "personalities", the more the grim old business of winning and losing is pressed into the background. Winners are held to have triumphed chiefly through charisma or intensity - hardly ever through technique or inventiveness; losers are booed from the stage as wimps who have suffered a failure not of their forehand or their service but a collapse of nerve. It was, we kept hearing, all about character. It was obvious even to an amateur that there was clear technical water between Henman and Hewitt. Tim looked like someone who had taken up tennis too late, and was doing his utmost to master the bloody game; Lleyton looked born with a racket in his hand. People tend to call this sort of talent "natural" or "typically Australian", but I wouldn't mind betting that it is the product of feverish and expensive private tuition. Sporting excellence doesn't come cheap.

Maybe we don't really like sportsmen. They are too uncool: we (or the media who speak on our behalf) prefer pop stars. And we routinely mistake celebrity for skill. David Beckham shrewdly indulges this banal reflex, but few sportsmen are such gifted image masseurs. Which is where this whole Big Brotherisation tendency curdles into sour grapes. It is as if we want Wimbledon fortnight to be one giant "character" parade, with viewers dialling a hotline to pick the winner. Such judgments are based on almost no knowledge of the person in question. And we grow splenetic when we feel let down: it is as if we have been jilted by someone we fancied. We TV voyeurs have only the flimsiest sense of what Henman or Hewitt or Serena Williams is like, yet we feel happy to pronounce on their every gesture. Anti-Henmaniacs wish he was more edgy and dangerous - an absurd proposition for a tennis player. What do we want, a Tyson-style rapist and cheat carrying our hopes? Go, Timbo! Kill!

So perhaps we should hang on to the Wimbledon rain for a while. It helps to keep us honest: the sun won't shine simply because it topped some TV phone poll. Sport - like the weather, and like life - is full of real disappointments. There were 128 people in the singles draw at Wimbledon, and 126 of them lost. The only thing they (and we) have to do is swallow defeat, and try again. How hard is that, really?

Hunter Davies returns in the autumn

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Sexy kids