Spectator sport

Way off track

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

What’s going on with athletics? Do you know anything that’s happened in the sport this year? Has a sport ever so completely disappeared as ‘track and field’ — and not just because a large part of it has vanished into the maw of state-backed cheating, lying athletes and complicit FSB agents? Have we had the Bislett Games, that ever-present feast of record breaking athletics from my adolescence? Has the Weltklasse in Zurich, or the Olympics in one night as it was known, come and gone? Have the UK trials taken place? (That was normally an intense couple of days.) The answers are: yes; no, they’re coming up in September; and yes of course. But you see what I mean.

Who announced themselves at the US trials? Which sprinter has come from nowhere and recorded a personal best to relegate a household name to the relay squad? Are we even bothered by how fit Usain Bolt is? There used to be a glorious sport called athletics: shame it doesn’t seem to exist any more. Of course golf shouldn’t be an Olympic sport since it’s not the pinnacle of the game; we had that on Sunday at Troon. But sooner or later someone is going to ask whether athletics should be an Olympic sport if no one really cares any more. Athletics goes to Rio on life support, and unless something happens, we might as well switch it off.

One real giant who is towering over a previously tainted sport is the extraordinary Chris Froome, whose impending victory in the Tour de France looks as inevitable as a pair of Theresa May kitten heels. It will be Froome’s third Tour victory, and a colossal achievement. He’s been undervalued, perhaps because he looks like a spindly seven-stone weakling who is about to get sand kicked in his face. But he is as tough as tugboats. As one commentator recently observed, he now not only dominates the Tour as a rider but he bosses it as a person too.

Froome is indeed slightly built, even for a cyclist, and is very accommodating with the media, despite them casting unfair doubt on his claims to be clean. But he is one steely son of a gun. He doesn’t take any rubbish from spectators and was even fined this year for whacking a fan who came too close. And he wasn’t afraid, a few years back, to get into a spat with Bradley Wiggins, who became very shirty when Froome started going too fast though he was just meant to be a back-up rider. He is an unlikely monster, which is undoubtedly what he becomes once he gets on his bike. He revolutionised the art of descent riding and effectively won the Tour over a few seconds on the eighth stage in the Pyrenees when he accelerated away downhill from the top of the Col de Peyresourde, straddling his crossbar in a skier’s racing tuck. The chasing pack couldn’t get anywhere near. On the dreaded Mont Ventoux he started running up the last kilometre when his bike got smashed up by a TV motorbike. He might sound like a Saffa (he’s Kenya-born) but he’s one of ours. No honour too great for Chris Froome.

As for the cricket, in the words of Donald Trump, what the hell’s going on? It was absorbing at Lord’s, but not a great Test match: you only get great games when top class bowlers are attacking top-class batsmen. This was good bowlers and (largely) so-so batsmen. But having lost a game due to the frailties of their top-order batting, the England selectors are bringing in two middle/lower order all-rounders — Stokes and Rashid — and a bowler, Anderson, for Old Trafford. Vince and Ballance are 45th and 59th in the averages. There are plenty of good players above them, and maybe they should get a chance. Despite all that, I have a sneaky suspicion England might make Pakistan pay for that saluting romp.

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