"Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
It’s a quote often attributed to gridiron guru Vince Lombardi and it has become one of the central tenets of American – or “U! S! A!” – sport.
But it turns out Lombardi was not the first to say it and he may even have been trying to say something completely different, which, for me, sums up the confusion surrounding elite sport.
Is it all about the ‘W’ and never mind the collateral damage? Or did sporting snowflakes like International Olympic Committee (IOC) founder Pierre de Coubertin have it right when they suggested that “it’s the taking part” that matters most?
This is not a choice British sport has had to ponder too many times. Sure, we have had plenty of success over the years, in lots of different fields, but it has tended to be if not fleeting, then certainly not dynastic. Serial and systematic winning has been the kind of vulgarity we have left to others.
Until recently, that is.
Fourth, then third, then second in the medal table for Team GB at the last three summer Olympics is sustained success by anybody’s measure, and the same sequence is second, third and second for the British Paralympic team.
No single sport has contributed more to this upturn in results than cycling. British bike riders have won 14, 12 and 12 medals at the last three Olympics and 20, 22 and 21 medals at the last three Paralympics.
There have also been numerous world titles, four Tour de France victories, lots of other race wins, success in BMX and mountain biking, an explosion in the number of people riding, more races staged here, more bikes sold, more venues and a much higher profile for both the sport and the means of transport.
So why is everybody so glum?
British Cycling, the sport’s governing body, and Team Sky, arguably the world’s best road racing outfit, are currently under investigation by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) for ‘allegations of wrongdoing’ related to a possible abuse of anti-doping’s get-out-of-jail-free card, the therapeutic use exemption, a mystery package delivered to a French mountain-top in 2011, and the claimed misuse of a legal but controversial painkiller.
UK Sport has a queue of angry national governing bodies who do not get any funding because they are not nailed-on winners to deal with.
This investigation has been poking around medical stores and asking famous people awkward questions for more than three months and the most likely conclusion is it will be inconclusive: a result that will not satisfy those convinced ‘UK Postal’ is no better than those rotten Russians, nor exonerate knights of the realm who say they have conquered foreign fields on nothing more than bread and water.
British Cycling has also been through two internal reviews in the last nine months, one related to alleged financial misconduct and the other to discriminatory and sexist behaviour by its former technical director. The latter of those managed the neat trick of upsetting both defendant and plaintiff: legal action remains a distinct possibility.
The attempt to keep things in-house at British Cycling’s Manchester base also failed, as UK Sport – the government agency that has been dishing out National Lottery lolly so successfully that Australia has given up pretending the Poms’ winning streak is down to a temporary loss of form and has copied the entire plan – decided the claims of bullying and bias were so bad they needed a more independent inquiry.
Like the UKAD investigation, this one has dragged on interminably and is almost guaranteed to disappoint everybody, from those who want British Cycling’s apparent obsession with medals to be disinfected by daylight, to those who want people to get a grip, ‘this is not for everybody, it is not the taking part that counts, it is the taking apart,’ etc, etc.
The problem here, of course, is that both sides in the debate have their points but inquiries set up by the agency that has given British Cycling millions to win the medals that have kept the millions flowing, while providing the template for all the other sports we are suddenly good at now, are not the best forum for sorting out those points.
To be fair, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the part of government that gives UK Sport the money it passes on to the likes of British Cycling, realised this and set up another, really independent review into the ‘duty of care’ national governing bodies have towards their athletes.
And yes, you guessed it, we are eagerly awaiting the publication of that worthy tome, too.
In the meantime, UK Sport has a queue of angry national governing bodies who do not get any funding because they are not nailed-on winners to deal with, and the government is busy ripping up its grassroots sports plan of the last decade because glory in the men’s keirin, coxed fours and dressage has not stopped the population from getting diabetic and obese.
It has sometimes been suggested that the British are never happier than when they have something to moan about.
But who could have guessed that winning, whether it be the only thing or just part of the thing, would be something we would get miserable about?