Too much information

How do you like your sporting heroes? Accessible? Frequently available for a little chat, a reminiscence or two, a bit of friendly banter? True, those exchanges will almost certainly be online, but they’ll feel real enough, one-to-one. Because, like the rest of us, those heroes will likely have their phones close to hand for most of their waking hours, and, like the rest of us, won’t be able to resist a notification signalling the arrival of another social media message. And often, moments after you’ve posted your own comment, back will come their friendly reply, sometimes even disclosing a snippet of previously unknown and, for many, fascinating information. It’s almost as though you’re old friends.

Personally, though, I prefer to keep a respectful distance between my sporting heroes and me. And this is why, back in the day, cigarette cards were winners: they told you everything you needed to know as a sports fan, and no more. It’s different now, particularly online. Everyone seems to want to know everything about everyone else, professionally and personally, and even if nobody is asking, many stars appear happy to tell all anyway. Realistically, we’re not talking the likes of Gary Lineker or Marcus Rashford, iconic individuals with eight or nine million followers on their various online platforms. But those heroes we worshipped back in the eighties, nineties or noughties, those sporting gods who have slipped from the public eye, who haven’t stayed in their sport as coaches, or transitioned into know-it-all television pundits, they’re mostly still out there and keen to rack up more followers. And they will often respond to a message with a sentence or two, a humorous quip, an emoji, or a simple, “Yeah, I remember every moment of it, mate.”

I want to recall my sporting heroes as they were: long-haired, loose-limbed, in their majestic pomp… on an imaginary pedestal

But I don’t want to be online “mates” with my sporting heroes. I want to recall them as they were: long-haired, loose-limbed, in their majestic pomp, and now rightly placed on an imaginary pedestal. I might have wanted to meet them back then, after watching them boss the pitch, the court, or the track, but I don’t want a chat with them today about life, the universe, the price of fish, or the good old days when everything was so much better than it is now. The added danger of becoming buddies with someone you don’t literally know, is that brief as your online encounters may be, they might reveal that – no matter how much you revered them as sporting gods – you don’t much like them as people. Their opinions, social or political, might well be the antithesis of everything you passionately believe in.

I remember well the intense rivalry between British middle-distance track legends Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. I was in the Coe camp; there was no logic to it, I just preferred Coe. His running was beautiful, he ghosted around the track and had a finishing sprint that made him appear as though he was floating. Ovett was more muscular, a powerhouse, accelerating through the gears like a high-speed bulldozer. At the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, Ovett claimed the 800-metres gold medal, when the whole world expected Coe to win his speciality event. Coe looked shattered in defeat. I felt almost as bad. But then in the 1500-metres final, the race for which Ovett was favourite, Coe claimed a glorious last-gasp victory. The gold medallist was understandably jubilant, while Ovett, after a congratulatory handshake for his rival, left the track with a wry smile, and I remember thinking, “Actually, he seems like a good bloke.” That was enough, I didn’t need, or want, to know more.

Post-athletics, through his politics, I’ve learned more about the now Lord Coe. It’s tainted my opinion, though if all my knowledge had been restricted to cigarette cards, it would probably be different. Until early in World War II, when the government banned them as “a waste of vital raw materials”, single cards were added to packets of cigarettes as one of a collectable set, to encourage brand loyalty. Cards covered a massive range of subjects, with painted illustrations or photographs on the front and the strictly-necessary facts on the back. Post-war they made a twenty-year comeback, and as a child I got in on the end of the craze, especially when cards started being added to packets of sweet “cigarettes” and then boxes of tea. I collected sets of famous footballers, cricketers, and other sporting stars. I did “swapsies” with my mates on twice-collected cards, and I proudly glued completed sets into specially produced booklets that I sent away for, along with a postage-paid, self-addressed envelope. In this innocent and fascinating way, I had at my fingertips all the sporting details required, but not too much information.

I moved into other areas of interest, and for several years one of my most treasured possessions was my Brooke Bond Tea album of freshwater fish. I’m no fisherman, but everything I know about freshwater fish was gleaned from those beautifully illustrated cards and the accompanying facts. Even today I could tell you the difference between a roach and a rudd, a pike and a perch or a trout and a tench. I grew to aesthetically appreciate and admire those fabulous creatures, and still do. But I wouldn’t now want to start a chat with them – especially not about the price of fish.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter and musician

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Columns, July 2023, Life, This Sporting Life

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