With Summer sports basking in a post-season recess and Winter ones still to reach full speed, the most engrossing sporting event currently going on, for Englishmen and Australians at least, is the non-Olympic battle that is cricket’s Ashes series.
For those not familiar with the peculiarities of cricket, the rivalry between these two stalwarts of the game stretches back to 1882. After a touring party from Down Under overcame the hosts for the first time, the Sporting Times published an obituary citing that “English cricket had died, and the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”
The tradition of an urn being presented to the winners had begun and over the 131 years since one of sports oldest, bitterest and most fiercely fought rivalries has emerged.
Yet even by historic standards, the current series is in danger of plunging to new lows.
Australian captain Michael Clarke has already been fined after his muttered comment of “get ready to have your f****** arm broken” to an opponent was picked up by a microphone. Clarke’s teammate David Warner meanwhile, banned earlier in the summer for punching England’s Joe Root in a bar, gloated to the press that another England batsman was “poor and weak.” The batsman in question, Jonathan Trott, has since returned home due to a long-term stress related illness.
After one newspaper has refused to refer to England’s Stuart Broad by name, or as anything other than a “a 27-year-old medium pace bowler” following an earlier transgression, the local press has got in on the action. This weekend a stadium announcer was also stood down after a series of mocking and racially-motivated remarks towards the tourists. In case I am giving that impression, England have been far from blameless in this rather petty diatribe.
And yet, while this pettiness has been much criticized, the hostility creates a nostalgic throwback to a more halcyon age where sport was a more gladiatorial battleground and rivalries therein were defined as much by personal as competitive animosity.
Other instances of such hostile rivalries do occasionally exist today, but they are rarer and rarer and more than ever confined to the often manufactured disputes of professional boxing.
Take tennis for example. After the polar opposites of McEnroe and Borg we had the American foes Sampras and Agassi. Now we have the quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray who manage to reach new levels of ability but by all the while remaining, if not best friends, then at least affable and respectful
Sprinting is the same. A sport once defined by testosterone-fueled posing, “trash-talking” and gloating has been transformed in recent years by the joyless abandon of Jamaican stars epitomized, of course, by Usain Bolt. By the time one of the best trash-talkers, Justin Gatlin, returned from a second doping ban and allegedly spat in Bolt’s lane as if to mark his territory in 2011, it came across as outlandish as it was unsuccessful.
The Olympics have long been defined by great rivalries as much as elsewhere in sport.
There have been disputes with distinctly political overtones. The Munich 1972 basketball final between the United States and Soviet Union epitomized this in the context of the Cold War era. A more extreme example was the Melbourne 1956 “Blood in the Water” water polo tie between the Soviets and Hungary which came so shortly after the former’s invasion of the latter, and deteriorated into a full blown brawl in the closing stages.
There have also been personal battles – often between two rivals from the same country. Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe at Moscow 1980 is the most famous example. The most bitter one however involved U.S. figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding ahead of Lillehammer 1994, where Harding was embroiled in scandal after her accomplice assaulted Kerrigan in order to ensure her absence.
All of these examples were well before my time so a severe brainstorming session seems necessary in order to find some more recent instances. I could not think of too many.
In swimming there have been great rivalries – think the “race of the century” in Athens and Phelps and Lochte in London – but to find a truly hostile one, mentioning France versus U.S. in the men’s freestyle relay seems the most appropriate.
After the French vowed to “smash” their opponents in Beijing, the Americans produced a scarcely believable comeback to snatch gold before the French got their revenge four years later in London.
In speed-skating, we have had recent battles between the South Koreans and the wonderfully named American Anton Apollo Ohno, in sailing there was the laser class dual between Sir Ben Ainslie and Robert Scheidt which ended in effigies being burnt of the Briton in Brazil. To return to England and Australia there was cycling’s Victoria Pendleton and Anna Meares who, after a decade of sparring, embraced on the track after winning a gold apiece in London.
There has also been a continuation of battles on national lines. At London 2012 we saw a Serbia versus Croatia handball match where the crowd as much the players were embroiled in dispute. Four years earlier in Beijing we had the infamous women’s beach volleyball encounter between Russia and Georgia which took place in the backdrop of the political dispute between the two.
“They are not even Georgians,” cried the Russian pair after tasting defeat. “Sore losers” was the blunt reply.
So what has precipitated the general move away from this sort of hostility?
With a more central and high performance focused approach to training, are athletes being coached out of any individuality? This certainly appears a plausible argument for athletes from certain nations – Chinese table-tennis players and Kenyan runners for example – who seem less likely to voice controversial opinions.
As improvements in psychology have matched improvements in performance, there has also been a realisation that trash talking is not always desirable. Although being embroiled in personal battles can make some athletes perform worse it makes others perform better. Phelps and Ainslie are two who belong firmly in the latter camp and this makes others less likely to wind them up.
This creates a situation where rivalries – think the rift at Team Sky between Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome – are played down to create a more harmonious picture.
But in a world where “celebrity culture” still rules there is certainly a market for this form of gladiatorial contest. It is a way to transcend sport, and in the case of Coe and Ovett to even reach the big screen.
In Paralympic sports the animosity between sprinters Jonnie Peacock and Richard Browne has created a spate of headlines and attention while Ben Ainslie’s “they made me angry” speech, and subsequent domination, at London 2012 was widely considered one of the moments of the Games.
So much as we admire the gentlemanly conduct of the likes of Federer, Nadal and Bolt, we can also enjoy less harmonious moments and there remains a part of us the spectator which longs for insults and “trash talk.”
For now we will have to be content with the next instalment of the Ashes beginning in Adelaide this week.
But next year we have the Winter Olympics and Paralympics and, with ice hockey and short-track speed-skating on the programme, there is every chance for thrills and spills to come – and hopefully just a few heated exchanges.