It seems a good bet that sport in 2012 will go down in history as one of those magical “Oh, you had to be there” moments, and with fair reason too. The memories are already being condensed down into a series of memes, relayed by future generations on TV set to a background of suitably emotional music, or in airy recollections on warm August nights in the garden after a few glasses of wine: the Mo-bot, didn’t it seem to be sunny every day?, Jessica Ennis, Clare Balding with that South African swimmer and his Dad, Boris dancing to the Spice Girls. I think members of my generation have similar memories of Euro 96, except we were probably all a lot happier at the end of the Olympics and Jimmy Hill didn’t rock up in a St. George’s cross bow-tie.
It barely seems possible, but cast your mind back to before July and all was not as rosey as it is remebered now. It is a universally acknowledged truth that in the run-up to a Big Event, something will go a bit awry and the media will be accused of the most grotesque and unpatriotic cynicism for having the gall to report it. What’s that? There seems to be a serious problem with racism amongst crowds at games in Poland and Ukraine ahead of Euro 2012? SHUT UP MEDIA! We want to enjoy the tournament without thinking about any of that stuff. Don’t you know sports and politics don’t mix!
So it was in the build up the Olympics that the dour-faced killjoys in the papers and on TV were reporting minor problems such as the firm given the security contract for the event had spectacularly failed to keep up its end of the bargain and 3500 British troops would be required to fill the gap instead. Or the not-at-all-terrifying-and-ever-so-slightly-distopian news that surface to air missiles were being installed on the roofs of London tower blocks, seemingly without taking the going to the trouble of consulting the residents first.
It was all going a bit Children of Men and this is before you remember that less than 12 months earlier these parts of London had seen the worst civil unrest since the 1980s, and the city’s supposedly loveable cartoonish mayor was left stammering out an explanation as to why he’d deemed the scenes of burning buildings, cars and looting to be not reason enough to cut short his holiday and return home to do some mayoring.
Add in a little more political context and this summer of sport was beginning to look dangerously like an elitist irrelevance. Just as dewy-eyed sporting historians like to set Botham’s Ashes against a backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain and the Brixton riots of 1981, the 2012 Olympics had its very own juxtaposition between sporting perfection and economic austerity: a national ‘day of action’ (or ‘strike’, as they’re otherwise known) over public sector pensions the previous November, local authorities facing a funding squeeze and announcing another round of job losses in February, a sovereign debt crisis threatening to engulf the smaller Eurozone states before turning its attention to the union’s more senior members. How this is remembered in relation to sport in 2012 depends much upon how these crises, all unresolved, play out. They could be tapped into shape and fitted up to the play the villain in a well-meaing ‘sport conquers all’ narrative, or all context may be stripped away, deemed to detract too much from all the lovely sport. (I don’t mean to be cynical (alright, maybe just a bit), I just think context is important sometimes.)
[and I almost forgot about the Queen’s Jubille. Which, in retrospect, looks curiously like, just as the athletes were in the final stages of their preperation, the British public was getting in some bloody good flag-waving practice before the main event. “The Olympics without any of the fun bits”, an uncharitable person might say.]
Back into the sporting arena and another reminder that all optimism pre-July was a futile pursuit came in the form of Euro 2012. The now traditional routine of getting excited, getting together and getting the drinks in seemed just that little bit more forced this time round and England were as flat as the beer in a can of Carlsberg the morning after. There were some good moments but England once again flattered to deceive before being out-played by Italy in the quarter-final and yet, almost ingenuously, still contriving to manufacture the customary exit on penalty kicks.
In retrospect, the national’s number one sport cast a lovely contrast for the Olympics to show itself off against. Football had a year dogged by racism on the pitch and in the stands, fans coming to the defence of a player convicted of rape, interminable arguments over what constituted a red card these days and, in the end, the Premier League and the European Cup wound up being won by the teams with the richest owners. (Allbeit both with surprisingly exciting denouements.) Who’d have thought it?
The Olympics would have had to have been pretty fucking terrible and depraved to look bad in comparison, and perhaps this is why the event took off in quite the way it did. Instead of stern-faced post-match press conference from managers attempting to put the psychological voodoo on their opponents, or the earnest millionaire delivering flat platitudes after scoring a goal, we had actual genuine, real-life enthusiasm, passion, excitement, humbleness, all the things that football seems to be moving further and further away from these days.
In the end, quite why football happened to look so bad over the summer months is probably a combination of a number of factors rather than just one, but it was nice to see people who work hard for comparatively very little recognition end up getting so much of the spotlight for a while. From the velodrome to the track to the lakey-thing where they did the sailing, the Olympics was pulling apart that old lie that you have to be a bit of a dick in order to be successful in today’s world. It was almost enough to make you believe all the stuff about role models and sporting legacy.
Sport isn’t the great healer that some would have you believe it is, though. Seeing Mo Farah win his second gold medal is probably scant comfort if you’ve been made redundant or are having the benefits you rely on cut. And, as such it should be put in its proper context. Sport in 2012 was as sport always has been – a form of escapism, a milieu of excitement, heartbreak and other emotions if you’re willing to invest enough into it.
But let’s stop beating around the bush, for once everything went pretty well. Alright, very well. If you like you can think about the Olympics and bookend them with Bradley Wiggins’s Tour de France win and Andy Murray’s triumph at the US Open and you’ve got rather a magnificent set of events. 2012 was a year which, for whatever reason, everything seemed to come together. If you could look past the giant McDonalds and the various politicians keen to get a slice of the feel-good pie and Paul McCartney singing along to his own song in the velodrome, it was all actually rather good.
With launch of the British pro cycling team Team Sky today, allow me to turn my attention to cycling for a minute.
Cycling has long been something of a minority sport in this country. In fact, the sport’s status would be best classified, until recently, as ‘cult following’, rather than ‘mainstream’. All this changed when the British track cycling team was completely revamped and given a fair old chunk of lottery money with the goal of winning Team GB some Olympic gold. Soon, gone were the days when British cyclists turned up to velodromes self-financed and clutching their own equipment. In the space of two Olympic games the British track cycling team had gone from outsiders to that rarest of rarities in British sport – a world-dominating, finely tuned winning machine. The heroes of this renaissance were the likes of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and the only man to have retained his gold medal in the individual pursuit, Bradley Wiggins.
The wider world of cycling, however, has much more to offer than velodromes and kilometre sprints. The greatest stars of the track are a different animal entirely to the monolithic endurance machines that are those men that put their bodies through hell year in year out and compete for glory in road events such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders and, generally speaking, the ultimate goal – Le Tour de France. The history of British riders in the Tour is a sporadic and scattered one. To a historian of the greatest race in the world they would be considered not much more than footnote – a few stage wins here, a few yellow jerseys there – were it not for one man who tragically and controversially wrote himself into the mythology of the Tour, Tom Simpson.
Simpson was a man from a working class, north eastern stock. His family moved to Derbyshire when he was young and Simpson found his cycling legs riding through the Peak District. With the goal of becoming a continental cyclist and keen to avoid the burden of national service that was soon to be upon him Simpson moved to Belgium to further his career. At this time, in the late 50s and early 60s, there was no great financial backing for someone with the aspirations of Simpson. The move was mainly self-financed and he earned his keep by racing in events around Europe and by garnering himself publicity in France by playing up to a British upper-class, Avengers-esque stereotype, often seen wearing a suit and bowler hat, clutching an umbrella and a newspaper and drinking a cup of tea. The French quickly took to this eccentric Brit and gave him the nickname ‘Major Tom’. So it was that, in 1967, Simpson entered a car dealership in France and put down a deposit on a brand new Mercedes. “Something to aim at”, Simpson told friends, making clear his intention to win the 1967 Tour de France and make enough money to pay for the car. Simpson never made it back to that car dealership. Towards the end of the tour, fuelled by amphetamines and half a bottle of brandy, Simpson wobbled up the slopes of one of the most ominous and daunting mountains in the Tour’s history, Mont Ventoux. Moving uneasily from side to side up the road Simpson fell off his bike and collapsed on Ventoux’s wind-swept lunar-esque white rocks that lined the side of the road. As his team car stopped and staff ran out to tend to him Simpson is alleged to have breathed his last words “put me back on my bike”, tried once more to ride up the mountain, fallen again and then died.
It could be said that, from then on, British riders in the Tour de France were riding in the shadow of Tommy Simpson. Garmin-Slipstream’s David Millar wrote on the anniversary of Simpson’s death in 2007 that Simpson’s memorial on Ventoux was a reminder of “how close he got and how far he fell – Tommy Simpson, cycling’s very own Icarus.”. On the 26th July 2009 the Tour once again climbed the Ventoux. According to the Guardian report from that stage:
‘Mark Cavendish removed his helmet as he rode past the memorial; Charly Wegelius and David Millar offered gifts, Wegelius a water bottle to be added to the pile of cycling knick-knacks, Millar a cotton hat, which he tossed in the direction of the pale grey marble monument. On it he had written: “Tommy Simpson RIP, David Millar.” ‘.
Before all this though the main pack had come past. Too focused and too drained to concentrate on anything but the road ahead of them were the main general classification contenders – Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, yellow jersey Alberto Contador, seven-time winner Lance Armstrong and, amazingly, Britain’s Bradley Wiggins. Wiggins had been nothing short of a revelation in the 2009 tour. Losing 10% of his body fat to adjust to the demands of climbing Wiggins had surprised all but himself when he found himself in 4th position coming to the Ventoux, the Tour’s penultimate stage. Needing just to keep pace with the main GC riders and not lose time to Andreas Kloeden, Wiggins rode up the Ventoux with a picture of Tom Simpson affixed to his bike. After finishing the Tour he told the Guardian:
“When I reached Ventoux on the second-last day it felt as if Tom was waiting for me. As I began the climb it felt as if his spirit was riding with me. It started on the early slopes and I imagined how Tom must have been feeling, riding towards his death, and the feeling grew as I climbed.
There were times when Andy Schleck was attacking and it was horrible. I thought, ‘I can’t go on. I can’t do this anymore …’ But I then thought more vividly of Tom and how he must have felt that last day. It was like a reason not to give up. I felt like I was doing it more for his memory than anything.”.
It seems perfectly fitting to imagine, therefore, that Bradley Wiggins, in this seemingly impossible quest to equal Robert Millar’s British best of 4th place, had not a brand new Mercedes as his “something to aim at”, but the legacy of Simpson himself.
Confounding expectations is something that British cycling supremos Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton and Steve Peters have made their stock in trade on the track over the last decade. Now they turn their attentions to road racing with the new pro cycling team Team Sky. Taking to the roads of London for the team launch today fans will have been filled with optimism and excitement to see the slick way this team has been assembled. It boasts amongst it’s ranks some of the finest young British riders (Ben Swift, Geraint Thomas, Russ Downing, Peter Kenaugh), some of the finest up and coming riders in all of cycling (Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lofkvist) and, firmly in position as team leader for the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins. Brailsford’s clearly stated aim for the team is to win the Tour de France within five years. Maybe Wiggins’ fourth place last year was just a preface for the next great chapter in British cycling, maybe it was a fluke he can never repeat. If we can be sure of one thing though it is that British cycling today took a step far greater than any it has taken before and announced itself as a serious force to be reckoned with in the big world of continental road racing. For Bradley Wiggins, riding onto the Champs-Elysée as the winner of the Tour de France now seems a considerably more realistic ‘something to aim at’.
I should mention that the biographical detail of Tom Simpson was learned from reading William Fotheringham’s stunnng biography Put Me Back On My Bike, Dave Millar’s “cyclings very own Icarus” quote comes from his foreword to the reissue of Simpson’s autobiography Cycling Is My Life and Bradley Wiggins’ descrpition of riding the Ventoux comes from the Guardian interview with Donald McRae Exhausted Bradley Wiggins now knows he can win the Tour de France.