Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sporting Snobbery ... A Confession

Is it me or has the Tour de France been a bit dull this year? No? So definitely just me then? Honestly, I can't say I've been able to get too excited about the prospect of the first ever British winner of the greatest race in sport. Good on Bradley Wiggins and all that, but his success has not really raised my heart rate.
Two reasons. One is that the race itself this year has been quite unexceptional. Team Sky has bossed it and as a result Wiggins has never really been truly tested. Maybe that's because there's no one good enough to test him (except his team mate Chris Froome).
Yes, I know that controlling the race is itself a huge sign of sporting prowess but it's not what I want from the Tour. My most cherished cycling memories have always been those moments - usually in the mountains; I've never been that bothered about the sprint finishes - where a rider is on his own against his closest rivals and has to put up or shut up. And so, as I've mentioned before, my favourite Tour moment of all is Stephen Roche's astonishing recovery on La Plagne in the 1987 tour when he hauled himself back to within spitting distance of Pedro Delgado after the Spaniard had attacked and opened up a 90-second lead. That and the time the (dope-assisted) Bjarne Riis rode away from all his rivals (including Miguel Indurain) on Hautacam in the 1996 tour in a contemptuous display of acceleration, not once, not twice, but three times.

If I'm honest, though, this isn't just about sporting taste. There's something else going on here too that I think I have to own up to. The reason I kind of don't really want Bradley Wiggins to win is that, well, he's not exotic enough for me. He's called Bradley and he's British and he doesn't fit in with my own sports snobbery. 
Back in the 1980s when Channel 4 first started screening highlights of the Tour part of the appeal for me was that it was not mainstream. I was living in Scotland but only my bike-loving mates Gerry and Davy knew who Robert Millar was at the time. Following the Tour was a mark of difference for us.
And marks of difference mattered then. Pop culture in the eighties was very bipolar. You either bought into the Tina Turner/Phil Collins mainstream or you bought the NME, listened to the Smiths and kidded yourself on you were cooler than everyone else. Coolness was a political statement. It meant you'd probably heard of  (if not actually heard) Test Department, seen the odd Wim Wenders movie and didn't vote for the Tories. Almost inevitably that outlook extended into your sporting tastes. And so Alex Higgins was cool, Steve Davis wasn't. Eric Bristow was cool, John Lowe wasn't.
You (okay, I) formed perceptions of sportsmen and women and put them in one camp or another. Davis was uncool because he was linked to Barry Hearn, was a very effective snooker player and turned up once at a Tory party conference. Alex Higgins was Alex Higgins.
In more recent years I've rather warmed to Davis, while the more I learned about Higgins's messy life the less I liked him. I still think he was the more thrilling - if not necessarily better - snooker player though.
You would think I'd have grown out of this by now, but if I'm honest I still carry a fair freight of sporting snobbery around with me. And so it doesn't seem right to me that a British team called Team Sky should dominate the Tour. It's too ordinary. I want it to be some exotically-named Spaniard or Italian. Or Colombian. (Whatever did happen to Luis Herrera?)
 Nor do I want English teams to win the Champions League (unless, of course, it happened to be Spurs, but I don't think there's any danger of that happening soon). And I rather enjoy it when England or Scotland are outplayed by a technically superior European or South American side because it plays into my vision of the rest of the world being cooler than us (though if it's Northern Ireland playing allegiance trumps snobbery).
I can't be alone in this, can I? There must be many of you out there who rave about the superiority of Serie A over the Premier League, or talk knowingly of the superiority of Cuban boxing in comparison to the rest of the world. (Examples welcome.)
The real triumph of cycling in recent years, of course, has been the huge explosion in its popularity in Britain. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins the sport is moving into the mainstream. It's getting extensive coverage in the press (rather than just a column buried somewhere deep in the sports pages) and you can buy creamy, luxurious magazines like Rouleur dedicated to the sport.
In some sense I'm thrilled by this - there's a sense of vindication inherent in the fact that everyone is cottoning on to something I've always known about -  but the snob in me is still slightly put out. Where were you all in 1984, eh? Now excuse me, I've got some Rough Trade B-sides to catalogue.

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