Britannia rules the pitches

2012-12-15 00:00

IF you were to ask an Australian which was the world’s greatest sporting nation, there is little doubt that he would pause for a nanosecond, to give the impression of considered thought, before answering “Australia”. If he had been answering this question at the turn of the century, he might have been correct, but at the end of 2012 he would be flat wrong.

To his horror, the only possible answer to such a question posed now must be “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. It does not matter how the cake is sliced, the answer cannot be any other country. No other nation has done as well as the UK in any of the well-contested international sports.

To their unmitigated dismay, even the mighty All Blacks were humiliated by England in the last major rugby match of the year. No one is suggesting that England are the best rugby team in the world after just one victory out of six matches against southern hemisphere teams, but it must now be in the top four of any sensible rankings.

For good measure, on the same day and venue as the men’s victory, the England women clobbered their Kiwi counterparts in a match full of good running rugby.

Most South Africans know that their cricket team are the number one ranked side, but England are not far behind in second spot. If a series against a full-strength England were starting in the next couple of weeks, who among us would be supremely confident of victory?

And so it goes in sport after sport: either England or the greater UK is on or close to the top.

In golf, the Ryder Cup was won by a European team that included just three players from the continent. The best golfer in the world is clearly Rory McIlroy and the UK has four players in the top 10 ranked golfers.

The UK came third in the unofficial 2012 Olympic medals table behind the Chinese and Americans, neither of whom play many international team sports. The cynics might point out that the Brits mainly excelled in the seated sports such as rowing, cycling and horse riding, but they also won several gold medals in the track events. Given their limited haul at Sydney in 2000, their performance in London was a massive improvement and who is to say that their haul in Rio will not be even greater?

It was at the Olympics that Andy Murray finally made the breakthrough into the highest echelon of tennis, a move which he confirmed shortly afterwards by winning the U.S. Open. With Roger Federer on the way out and Rafael Nadal’s future uncertain, Murray will probably finish next year ranked either one or two and will almost certainly gather another major title.

I know Murray is actually a Scot, but, for the time being at least, Scotland is still part of the UK and it would be churlish to deny that country its lone contribution to British sporting supremacy.

No British team has won the Fifa World Cup since England did so in 1966, but few would argue that the Premier League is not the most compelling football competition in the world. It is true that many if not most of its players are foreigners, but it is to lucrative England that they have gone in huge numbers, despite the ghastly winters. Although often disappointing their supporters, England’s footballers invariably reach the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Even in sports where the Brits have not won anything for years, such as hockey and squash, their teams and players are consistently competitive with the best in the world.

The real question should be not “Who is the best sporting nation?” but “Why are the Brits now so good, given a lousy climate and a long history of under-delivering?”

I believe the answer to that question is because they are so well organised and financed at all levels in so many sports. The funds from the lottery have made an enormous difference to British sport from grassroots to high performance. Talent is soon spotted, is readily nurtured and is well looked after. Very few promising athletes slip through the net for want of recognition or support.

Coaches abound throughout British sport. The public school system is full of men and women who are dedicated to sport and who take great pride and care with the talent that passes through their hands. The enthusiasm and professionalism of these coaches, many of whom are qualified teachers, is a priceless asset.

Beyond the public schools, the club and county structures in most sports look after many of the children who go to state schools where sport is often neglected. Promising young athletes are taken into the system at an early age and are given every chance to develop skills in competitive environments

There is another reason why the Brits are now doing so well at games. Sport offers excellent career opportunities that did not exist 50 years ago. In the UK, there are cricketers, golfers, tennis players, footballers of all kinds and even athletes are able to earn the kind of money that existed only in the dreams of those who played sport in the middle of the 20th century.

For the best in the UK, sport offers a career whose rewards and longevity are the envy of athletes in many other countries. In the UK’s celebrity culture, famous sportsmen and women contrive to earn good money with little effort long after their playing days are over.

Sport is a thriving industry in the UK. Even for those who are not wildly successful and famous, there is life after sport. There is demand for experience and expertise throughout the system.

Nothing in life lasts forever and other countries will catch up, but for the time being the Brits are top dogs in sport, however much that thought might appal the Aussies and the rest of us.

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