I nearly choked on my Weetabix. Having spent last week on holiday in Italy, the Olympics had pretty much passed me by. With Britain languishing below Ukraine in the medals tables, and Italian television not exactly concentrating on rowing or sailing, I’d assumed most of the British teams had got stuck at Terminal 5 and never made it to Beijing. Then, calmly having breakfast at home on Saturday morning, I heard the BBC commentator shout out, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and watched our rowers draw level with the Australians. “Wherever you are, shout and scream at the television,” he ranted, “We can do it”. In London’s Earl’s Court, thousands of Aussies were hurling cans of Fosters at the screen. By the time our lads had crossed the line, I was dancing round the kitchen. The dogs started howling, convinced the Italian sun had gone to my head.
British victories happen so rarely, we can be forgiven a moment of euphoria. The BBC said that we hadn’t won as many medals in a single day for the last hundred years. That’s an even greater achievement than it sounds, because in the 1908 London Games virtually anyone who owned a pair of shorts could take part. In the Tug of War, Britain managed a clean sweep of gold, silver and bronze because we entered three separate police teams. The Americans, our only serious competitors, withdrew from the competition complaining that the Liverpool Police wore spikes on their boots for extra grip. The judges rejected the protest on the grounds that the boots were standard police issue.
It’s a shame the Tug of War has lost its Olympic status because it was up there with Polo and deer shooting as Britain’s best chance for glory. My grandfather was a tugger (I’m guessing that’s the word). I have a silver tankard at home commemorating his second prize in the 1890 Royal Tournament. He bequeathed his sporting ability to my Father who managed not only to play cricket for Surrey second XI, but was also a professional Football League referee. Indeed I have a newspaper photograph of Dad at Highbury in 1927 refereeing the first ever match in the world to be played with a white ball. He’s quoted in the Daily Mail saying he thought it would never catch on.
Poor Dad, I was such a disappointment to him. He tried hard to teach me how to hold a straight bat, but I’m afraid our sporting genes skipped a generation (my daughter played hockey for England). My Mum, who also came from a sporty family, complained there was no point washing my rugby kit – it came out of my rucksack in the evening as pristine as it had gone in. My parents knew that when I joined the school rowing team, it was just a motley group of rugby skivers (our boathouse down at Blaydon allowed us to get away from school for a whole afternoon). I remember the abject embarrassment on my parents’ faces when they came over to Cumbria to cheer us in the Talkin Tarn Regatta. Their exhortation “it’s not the winning but the taking part” must have taunted them as we coasted in half a mile behind the tailenders.
So, as Britain soared up to third in the medals table yesterday, I was rather hoping this national sporting resurgence wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan. Perhaps our success might rub off on the other teams I support? I’m writing this just as Newcastle United are running onto the pitch at Old Trafford for their first game of the new season. I’ve supported them all my life, and I’m still waiting for my first glimpse of silverware.