Sporting excellence: wake me up when it’s all over

I simply can’t understand the mindset of those who always support the favourite.

photo of roger federer

Roger Federer: won everything for over a century

It’s probably because I’m British that I usually only ever seem to meet people who support the underdog. Yet, once, on a windy hillside in Andalucia as the sun went down, I met a German woman who loved Roger Federer. She always – and I mean always, always, always – supported him, despite the fact that he is by far the best tennis player who ever lived, that he has broken every record in the book about ten times, and usually either wins, or gets into a competition’s final or very near to it. His earnings are enormous. His media personality is faultless. His home country is picture-postcard, chocolate-box, holiday brochure perfect, and oh, he is an utterly sublime athlete who has also miraculously remained injury-free for over ten years, during which his haul of Grand Slam trophies signals a ruthless efficiency, great skill and dogged persistence. His house(s) must be fit to bursting with silverware. And he deserves all of it.

But to this day I can’t understand why such an almost guaranteed winner would attract the support of anyone. Where, precisely, is the suspense, the doubt, the excitement, that go to make up the greater part of a memorable sporting experience? Maybe that’s just a British perspective. But by supporting the likely winner, what’s the best you can expect? A result you expected. The worst, that (being Federer) he only just lost, but that he’ll win next time, and comprehensively, taking the trophy and three or four of the trophies after that.

And the same can be said for Manchester United. Or Sampras. Or indeed Stephen Hendry, in his hey day.

Is it a British thing?

Things are a little different these days, of course, for Federer. He is on the very slow downward curve of the latter stage of his career. But even after ten stellar years he’s doing pretty damn well. He just nearly won the World Tour Finals for the seventh time, beaten only by the world number one, and one of the greatest players to pick up a racket, someone at the height of his career. But, when I was stumbling amongst the scorpions, snakes and centipedes and dodging the wild boar in southern Spain, Federer was pretty much top dog. Supporting him, amazed me. I couldn’t understand it.

Boris Johnson mayor of london

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London: proof the British love an underdog

We are a nation of lovers of the downtrodden, the helpless and the needy, most probably because collectively this is how we perceive ourselves as a nation, amongst all the other nations, which we don’t quite understand, feel very slightly threatened by simply because of their very existence and because they never serve mashed potato and don’t have grown men routinely eating poor quality chocolate bars which they buy at petrol stations or in multi-packs from supermarkets on winter evenings after work. This is true and is reflected in the price of Mars and Snickers in Europe where they retail at not far short of £8.50 each, due to low demand. I know this because I tried to buy a Mars bar in Venice in 1987 but left the shop empty-handed with low-level trauma after spotting the price tag. This identification with the underdog, of course, excludes the issue of state benefits in the UK, where the nation instantly and automatically divides itself into two vast baying armies, one waiving a freshly ironed copy of the Daily Mail, the other tutting over their Guardian which lies spotted with basil-infused olive oil on a heavy oak table. But when it comes to sport, as spectators, we know how best to achieve the ecstasy of the outright unimaginable victory, the hardly possible made possible and somehow transformed into reality, where the player, the team, disadvantaged by a long and deeply-held cultural belief that everyone and everything in the country is actually utter rubbish, and any previous good form (unlikely) was a sublime scam, an outright fluke, or must have been some crazy dream. And we have had enough practice in this, especially in football, where, as an English person, supporting the underdog and your national team coincide perfectly, although that has long become tiresome.

I make no aspersions about the Germans. I just don’t understand them, if the views I encountered are representative, and according to a friend who was raised there, they are. No, I respect any nation who produced such an impressive array of original philosophers, composers, artists and, of course, sports men and women. I respect winners, the successful, achievement per se. But surely the long-shot, the unlikely victor, the unexpected hero, whatever his or her nationality, is … well, more exciting. It is a recognition of achievement against great odds, and all the rest of it, but none the less for that. It shows a capacity to abandon oneself to the spirit of the epic struggle of David against Goliath, where all is lost until an audacious act turns reality upside down and inside out, denying those who embody excellence their tedious, if impressive, march through history. But supporting the favourite each and every time? Isn’t that just too scientific an approach, devoid of imagination and empathy, where, because of the predictability of it all, the observer derives a grim and hollow satisfaction from a result he expected all along?

“I think it’s better we downplay our chances. I think we should cherish this role as the underdog, because it’s the perfect way to ride this race.”

Lance Armstrong, world-class cyclist and latter-day drugs cheat


Copyright © 2012 David Hansard / davidhansard.wordpress.com
All articles on davidhansard.wordpress.com are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.



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