You really have to feel sorry for the Lions. Their glorious victory in Sydney on our Saturday morning to clinch the series against Australia should have been the sporting event of the northern summer, and the rugby players would have expected to find themselves all over the sports pages of the London papers on Monday, and maybe even the front pages. There might have been some space as well for Chris Froome taking the yellow jersey in the Tour de France.
But on Sunday, as you may just possibly have heard, a British player won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon, and the country went mad. Or at least the media did: the very grave crisis in Egypt was knocked off BBC news bulletins, and on Monday the Times, once the weightiest paper in Europe, devoted its first eight pages to this lawn tennis match. One doesn’t have to be stuffy to detect a certain lack of proportion, enthralling though Murray’s straight-set victory over the top-ranking player of the moment was.
What’s not in doubt is the truly remarkable renaissance of British sport. Murray’s victory was an extreme case, the first by a British tennis player wearing shorts, as the whimsical phrase goes, which is to say since Fred Perry, the last winner from our damp little island, took the 1936 title in long flannel trousers. But then the Lions hadn’t won a series for 12 years, and no Englishman had won the Tour de France since the race began in 1903 until Bradley Wiggins’s victory last year. As I write it looks very much as though he will be followed this year by Froome, who is British in the broad sense that he was born in Kenya to English parents and grew up in South Africa.
A year ago the London Olympics were not only very well organised but happy and successful, silencing sceptics, among whom I had been numbered. They also saw a cascade of medals. An English golfer, Justin Rose, won the US Open last month, after back-to-back wins in that event in 2010-11 by the Ulstermen Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell. After one kind of Test series against Australia we now begin another, and there are high hopes for our cricketers as they begin what is frankly an absurd double Test series against Australia over more than six months in the northern and southern hemisphere, ten consecutive matches from Trent Bridge this week to Sydney in the first week of 2014.
For many years I consoled myself with a private theory: we English had a genius for inventing games which we lacked the climate to play, so that we were then put in our place by countries that did have the right climate. The Aussies and West Indians beat us at cricket, the Brazilians and Argentines beat us at soccer, the New Zealanders and South Africans beat us at rugby, and almost everyone beat us at tennis. All of those games were definitely English creations, cricket emerging from the Weald of Kent in the early 18th century (and very corrupt the early game was), soccer and rugby evolving from the games played by English schoolboys.
What we now call tennis was literally invented, when Major W.C. Wingfield designed and patented a racquets-and-ball game to be played on grass courts. He originally called it sphairistike, a coining from Greek, until the languid Tory politician A.J. Balfour suggested that ‘lawn tennis’ might be a little snappier. Even if Balfour did later became prime minister, that hint to Wingfield was one of his more important contributions to history. And if not bike racing, then the bicycle itself is definitely another English invention.
But then, having dreamed up and generously donated these games to the world, we stopped winning. When the soccer World Cup began in 1932, England were too snooty to take part at all. Then we changed our minds, and deigned to play in 1950, since when out of 16 Cups we’ve managed to win just once, and even then we didn’t deserve to (no one who remembers 1966, ‘They think it’s all over — it is now’ and all, can honestly say that Bobby Moore’s Englishmen were better than Pele’s Brazilians). Our cricketers have been through long barren periods when they were routed by the West Indians or the Australians. As for athletics, one might like to expunge from our memory the year 1996: at the Atlanta Olympics, Great Britain managed a single gold. And McIlroy’s victory in the US Open was the first by anyone from the British Isles in 40 years, since Tony Jacklin in 1970.
Quite what explains this resurgence isn’t easy to pin down, but there it is: from the misery of Atlanta 1996 to the glory of London 2012, when the Olympics, following the very happy celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Wiggins’s Tour victory, saw an astonishing triumph for the British team, with 29 gold medals. Then we went from three consecutive defeats for Lions touring teams to the famous victory in Sydney. Part of it is sheer professionalism, something the English affected to despise once, but no more. Perhaps the best example has been cycling, with the truly formidable Sir David Brailsford as maestro of both the Sky team at the Tour de France and the British national team who have been dominating track cycling for years past, and with whom Wiggins won yet another Olympic gold medal last year.
But the Lions victory was also a triumph of careful organisation under the direction of Warren Gatland (all right, he’s a Kiwi, but then there are quite a few cheerful mercenaries in all sports today: not every one of the Wallabies is Australian by birth, is he?). He has also led Wales to two grand slams in the domestic Six Nations tournament, and hasn’t ruled himself out to take the next Lions party to New Zealand in four years’ time, which could give his homeland something to think about.
We English also claim rather spuriously to have invented sportsmanship, the good sport who doesn’t whine in defeat or gloat in victory. But I have to confess to my antipodean friends that right now I feel much like Willie Whitelaw, the Tory politician, on a different occasion: ‘Wrong to gloat, mustn’t do it. Well, I can tell you, I’m gloating like hell.’
Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s books include Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France, The Strange Death of Tory England and Yo, Blair!