Andy Murray is currently my favourite sportsperson. This surprises me, because for many years I could barely stand him. I’ll come to why I think I struggled to warm to him shortly. But right now I feel nothing but admiration. He’s a tremendous tennis player: he’s physically strong and mentally smart, he’s solid, robust and consistent, he has phenomenal talent and the full range of shots. Above all, he’s a supreme competitor; his fighting qualities and will to win are superb and among the very best I have seen in any sport. He may be a tiny bit behind Federer, Nadal and Djokovic when it comes to assessing overall greatness, but in the finest era in the history of men’s tennis there’s no shame in that. Murray’s achievements are outstanding (and there’s the promise of more to come—there is every chance that he may dominate the men’s game for the next year or so) and he undoubtedly already belongs among the all-time greats.
I like his personality as much as I like his tennis. Murray refuses to participate in the age of the celebrity. I love the monotonous drone of his voice (which has earned him a reputation as dull—but watch his tennis, which is anything but dull) and his downbeat, dry answers to interviewers’ questions. It all gives the impression that he is simply not bothered by demands to hone a glossier, more media-attractive personality. There is nothing flash or fame-hungry about him. Often attired on court as if he was intending to spend the time lounging in front of the television, he just gets on with the job of being a brilliant tennis player. But pay attention to the interviews: behind the drone is an extremely intelligent, drily humorous man.
Yet for a long time I liked him little. In part this stemmed from my own issues: I was a fairly good tennis player as a child, and for years I liked to imagine that if only my parents had granted my wish to be sent to tennis school in Florida it would have been me, rather than Tim Henman or Murray, who emerged as the finest British player since Fred Perry. I never, of course, seriously believed this, but even as a non-serious fantasy it was the source of a certain amount of envy towards Henman and Murray. (Anyway, having now made public that it could have been me winning Wimbledon—although, somewhat perversely, Roland Garros was always the one I wanted to win since I fancied myself as a clay court specialist despite never having played on clay—I have probably resolved this minor psychological issue.)
But that pathetic twinge of envy on my part was not really the problem. The problem was the hideously manic and frenzied support that surrounded Henman and then Murray. I struggle with unthinking, flag-waving patriotism at the best of times, and when it rears its ugly head at sporting events I get decidedly queasy. My objections to the fervent, enthusiastic support for Henman and Murray are, of course, no more rational than the patriotism I am criticizing. But it all struck me as cloying, sentimental and simple-minded. Many of the fans seemed to me—and I know I am being mean and unfair here—middle-class non-entities who knew little about tennis but wanted a jolly good excuse to wave a flag. I realize that all this makes me come across as an irritating idiot with feelings of superiority—which is doubtless what I was (and possibly still am in the eyes of some). But it meant that I wished for disappointment to descend upon the Union-Jack-emblazoned fans. That I have managed to transcend this petty-mindedness in the case of Murray is an indication of just what a fine tennis player and personality he is. And, perhaps, that I have grown up a bit.
Nevertheless, I still have a problem with the sheer sentimental, stupid guff that attends British sport. My pet hate is the short video productions the BBC likes endlessly to make for almost any significant sporting occasion, always full of empty, staccato-delivered short sentences (‘One man. Born in a land of mountains. Born to a lifetime’s quest. To conquer the ultimate mountain. To be the best. First there was the Swiss maestro. Then the Spanish bull. Then the Serb warrior. And now there is Scotland’s bravest. Britain’s finest. Andy Murray. The world’s number one.’—there, I’ve just scripted one for the BBC; all it needs is some footage of Scottish mountains, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Murray hitting a winner, Murray lifting a trophy, all to the accompaniment of some stirring electronica). These dismal productions think they’re clever and inspirational and artistic, but are truly just utter junk taking up time that might be spent on intelligent analysis. They reduce sport—a brilliant, fascinating human activity—to the intellectual level of toddlers and the sophistication level of the Daily Mail. Yes, they really are that terrible.
It’s all of a piece with the general attitudes to British sporting achievement. I enjoyed the Rio Olympics not because of British sporting success, but despite it. I had no problem with any of the British medallists, and indeed cheered many of them on. But the constant obsession with medal success, with finishing high on the overall medal table, with surpassing Athens and London, was grating—and, in many ways, disturbing. Immense pride was taken in the millions spent on British cycling and the consequent Rio medal haul. All of which suggests some extremely skewed priorities: in a country with growing inequality, poverty and social problems, why are millions being spent just so we can triumph over the French, Germans and Americans in a velodrome once every four years? I value sport, but I’m content that Britain competes; I don’t demand that Britain wins. Watching interesting competition—between anyone, it doesn’t have to involve British competitors—is enough. So why was the Rio Olympics dominated by an obsession with British success?
Back in the Cold War era, countries such as the Soviet Union and East Germany were similarly obsessed with sporting success. And they achieved it (thanks, in part, to vast doping programmes). While their athletes were hoovering up Olympic medals, the economies and societies of these countries veered between impoverished stagnation and the brink of complete meltdown. Sporting achievements gave these countries a veneer of successful functioning. It was, as we know, all an illusion, but one that the Soviet Union, East Germany and others were determined to sustain as long as possible. And that’s why the British determination and obsession with global sporting success is so disturbing: it looks a bit too much like the desperate action of a country that knows, deep down, it is in difficulties, but wants to keep up the fantasy of greatness for as long as it can afford to.
The Rio Olympics came shortly after the EU referendum: here was a country that had just suicidally voted for its own terminal decline into irrelevancy and insignificance getting manically excited about its ability to produce men and women who could ride bikes really fast around a wooden track. I was pleased for Bradley Wiggins and the rest that they did the job the millions of pounds was funding them to do. Although I come across in this post as petty and small-minded, I genuinely did cheer (in a restrained, silent way) the British cyclists on. And then I gave some thought to what it all meant. It meant we could feel good for a few hours and forget about the numerous political, social and economic problems around us, and it meant that the fantasy of British greatness could be sustained just that little bit longer.