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5 February 2001

For successful sport, you need a diet of rice and fish

By Robert Winder

Wall-to-wall sport is all very well, but it does have an odd, strawberries-in-winter flavour. I mean, here we are, in the season of frost and floods, and what do we find capturing our escapist attention? Tennis in Australia, golf in South Africa and Arizona, cricket in Australia, even some indoor athletics. There is no escaping football, of course, but otherwise the prevailing imagery is of tanned athletes squinting in sunshine as moths and flies beat at the sweat-soaked camera. It is more than a little surreal. Just as, at the London Boat Show, yachting is presented as a sun-drenched fantasy, a bikini-clad pursuit conducted in some turquoise tropic, so, too, with sport: it now comes seasonally adjusted, like inflation. The sun barely sets on the games we play and watch. We are offered a kinetic utopia of permanently bronzed youthfulness, attractively wedged between adverts for fatty snacks and performance-reducing lagers.

For the players, the hazards in this travelling theme park are obvious. How can they help becoming jaded and jet-lagged? Of all the extraordinary sights on the television screens last week, few were more surprising than the look on Tiger Woods’s face as yet another putt slid past the hole. The headline machinery fell silent: “They’re just not falling, says former champ” won’t quite do any more. The commentators simply sighed and said he was “human after all”. But the idea that so supreme a model might succumb to what cricketers call permatour clearly made them queasy: what on earth would they do with all those broadcasting hours if the Tiger wasn’t swishing his haughty tail? Could they possibly sell world rights on the back of a strong showing by Fred Funk?

For the fans, the dislocation is even more unsettling. All sports now aspire to a uniform archetype of caramel tans, white teeth and pop-groupie clothing concessions. Athletes of both sexes bounce into interviews to say that, sure, they hit the ball pretty good out there today, and a couple of calls went against them, but they kept their focus and had a good break at 17 so, heck, if they can shoot low tomorrow then who knows?

That’s bad enough. The greater loss is to our sense of the sporting calendar. Children no longer see why you can’t play football in the summer. And our great seasonal events (which, in Britain at this time of year, are inevitably mud-spattered) seem stodgy. Worst of all, the sheer volume of world sport means that they are losing the imposing sense of ritual that once made them captivating national occasions. Everyone tries hard to trumpet the “romance” of the FA Cup, but you don’t have to be a spoilsport to notice that it feels, these days, a bit of a dutiful chore, like a school sports day. Everyone knows it is won not by the best team, but by the one that flukes a few home draws against the weaklings and enjoys, at crucial stages, “that little bit of luck”. It’s a nice day for the little leaguers, but that’s about it.

Much the same can be said of the Six Nations, the domestic rugby festival that is once more upon us. It used to be an annual epic, pitting the best and bravest against one another in an atmosphere of robust pride. Now it seems a slightly shrill exercise in petty nationalist tub-thumping. As professional rugby blinks awkwardly into the glare of its professional new dawn, the Six Nations already seems a bit of a sideshow, a trial run for the larger contests ahead. This is probably true for the club competitions, too: it is surely only a matter of time before the Leicester Tigers grow weary of duffing up the usual tribes of British ex-coppers and farmers, and seek sterner (that is, more lucrative) challenges against the Auckland Orcas, or Sydney Scorpions, or whatever they’re called.

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While we are about it, we might think hard about exporting domestic rugby’s confusing assortment of beery cups and trophies – if only to produce a level playing field. It has been obvious for some time that genuine rugby excellence tends to locate itself in the great wine-producing regions of the world: Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France. The home nations, with their ale-based culture of training and sponsorship, can’t help seeming swollen, pasty, distended and bleary. But if your sponsor’s delightful products get to the parts other beers cannot reach, and if those parts are mainly in the midriff area, then what can you do? Not until our domestic trophies are sponsored by refined cabernets and elegant burgundies can we really start thinking of ourselves as world-beaters.

Maybe it would be a mistake, though, to tinker further with national habits. We need some seasonal imperatives, surely. The former trainer of the West Indies cricket team once explained that the players used to be tremendously fit, because they came from poor countries with an excellent diet: fish, rice, vegetables. The hamburgerisation of the globe has afflicted the Windies along with everyone else. And they find themselves in an unusual bind. In this day and age, it takes a great many expensive food consultants and diet therapists to get players back to the healthy combination they used to take for granted. The hapless West Indians are rich enough to get American food, but not rich enough to avoid it.

Ah well: that’s progress for you. It took Jennifer Capriati’s stirring win in the Australian Open to remind us of the connection between sport and life. Nearly two decades after that contrived juvenile joie de vivre – grinning braces and acne – first lit up the centre court, and after a long struggle with depression, she finally found her professional feet. Hats off to her. In standing for the idea that people have to struggle for their art – even if their art is a sport – she’s a strong argument against the notion of sport as an infantile hothouse. Will we heed it? Want to bet?