Of all the names one would least expect to find in reports of a controversy about sport, life and death, and America, that of Captain Mark Phillips would be a leading contender. The captain – “Foggy Phillips”, as he was unkindly known when he was the bewildered consort of Princess Anne – has been out of the headlines ever since he retired from the royal family. It turns out that he is now a big cheese in American equestrianism. Coach to the US Olympic three-day-eventing team, he also designs courses for many of the sport’s leading competitions.
The controversy was caused by the fact that rather too many people have been killed by eventing to be put down to bad luck. Over the past year and a half, 12 riders have died while competing in the cross-country leg of the event, almost always when their horses, sometimes travelling too fast, have hit a solid obstacle and turned over, crushing their riders.
A 13th death was narrowly avoided last month in Florida when Darren Chiacchia, a bronze medallist at the last Olympics and one of America’s leading riders, was involved in a horrific fall after which he was in a coma for a week.
Had those 12 deaths occurred in a more brutal, less middle-class sport – boxing, say, or speedway racing – there would be public outrage. Yet until now even those involved in eventing have taken a rather relaxed attitude to its dangers. Riding horses at speed across country has always been dangerous, as the large number of deaths and serious casualties caused by fox-hunting in its glorious heyday attests.
But when Captain Phillips, responded to his online critics by accusing them of “using the anonymity of cyberspace to cast a dark shadow over the future of the sport”, he was, unusually, reflecting the mood of the moment. Sport now matters more than ever – often, it seems, more than life and death – and in a particular way.
Whatever the pie-eyed optimists may claim, it is not a force for universal love and brotherhood but legitimised expression – one of the few remaining – of the human need to win at all costs. In those treasured moments when sportsmen and women from opposing teams show friendship towards one another at opening ceremonies or lining up on a pitch for national anthems, they are celebrating competition, not unity.
The will to win, felt by players and spectators alike, is no longer a matter of national pride. Three out of four semi-finalists in football’s European Cup are English; the fact that the majority of those playing are foreigners is cheerfully forgotten. The result is what matters. At a time when triumph is rare, and triumphalism a source of disapproval, winning at sport offers the ultimate therapy.
Naturally, politicians are eager to gain collateral advantage from this passion. The friendliness of sport, it was once believed, would bring China into the international fold. That view was disastrously naive. You can’t use sport as a political tool and then, when others do the same thing in a less diplomatic way, cry foul.
Competitiveness is contagious, as the Chinese are now discovering. The need to protest about human rights and the treatment of Tibet at a moment of supreme potential embarrassment for politicians is every bit as powerful as an athlete’s hunger for a gold medal.
Sport, and winning at sport, has spilled into other areas, bringing with it not the beautiful multicultural togetherness of a Coca-Cola ad but hard-eyed competition, the desire to win, and a recognition that winners do not always play by the rules.
You must be joking, Mr Cleese
Hardly a day goes by without another well-known person discovering that life has been meaningless until the saintly Barack Obama came along. The latest celebrity to have experienced this phenomenon, which should perhaps be known as “the Obama moment”, is John Cleese. During an interview, Cleese has revealed that he will be offering his services as speechwriter to this “brilliant man”, should he win the presidential nomination.
The Democrats should think very carefully before accepting this offer. Once the funniest man in the world, Cleese renounced humour some time ago and, even if he hadn’t, the silly walks/Basil Fawlty image may not improve Obama’s standing with the American electorate.
* As communities across the country protest against the closing of their post offices, there have been rather fewer sightings of Labour MPs among their ranks. Most of those who happily posed for the local press at demonstrations against closures in their constituencies, proved to be embarrassingly spineless when the bill reached parliament. Some abstained; others even voted in favour of it,.
For the old, and those who prefer to walk to a post office, an alternative system is being put forward. The PO is proposing an “outreach” service, in which temporary counters might be opened at churches, libraries, and jobcentres. It is a sadly ramshackle arrangement but it will at least offer the two-timing MPs an opportunity to appear once more in public. Perhaps they might buy stamps at the local church/postie, and then pray for forgiveness. Those jobcentre/posties could soon be of use to them, too.