By Ronan George
Seven days from today Britain could have a new world champion. Someone acclaimed in their field and demonstrably better than their rivals. But beyond fans of the minority though wealthy sport, the nation will probably shrug and carry on.
Barring human error or technological failure, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton should finish in the first or second place he requires at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, to claim a second Formula One world title. In a season in which he has been pushed all the way by teammate – and the only man who can deny him the crown – Nico Rosberg, Hamilton has become the nation’s most successful driver in terms of race wins, joined Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel in achieving 10 or more victories in a season and moved to joint-fifth on the all-time race wins record.
By any measure, the 29-year-old has had a memorable campaign, putting aside the exceptional car provided for him by his paymasters Mercedes. Skill and daring, evident race in and race out, should see him recognised as a sporting superstar the country can be proud of. However, from the outset of his career the wider public have been indifferent to the Stevenage-born driver. Some will put this down to the minority status of a sport that trails behind the Premier League juggernaut, England’s rugby team and the drama that is English cricket.
But how then would this explain the popularity of former drivers like Sir Stirling Moss, Nigel Mansell and Sir Jackie Stewart? Despite being of mixed race and working class – in a sport synonymous with glitz, glamour and serious cash – Hamilton’s back story and achievements have failed to resonate with the wider public. Homes around the world, a popstar girlfriend and millions in the bank are sometimes used as excuses for the public’s suspicions, but the playboy lifestyle of James Hunt in the 70s made him a national darling.
Even for a country famously for the underdog and mistrusting of the exceptional, the indifference shown to Hamilton is strange. In previous years, title glory next Sunday would all but guarantee him the Sports Personality of the Year trophy. But would there be any real surprise if he failed to even make the top three?
This attitude towards Hamilton is not the exception however. Ask yourself who is the country’s sporting darling in the way Henry Cooper, Sir Ian Botham or Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne once were. No doubt some will consider this as a sign of the nation’s maturity, no longer living vicariously through the achievements of sporting supermen and women. But for me it is sad that there is such disconnect between the public and sports stars.
Even when athletes behave in ways that led to the acclaim of their predecessors, they attract critical comment. Muhammad Ali and the Black Power salute athletes, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, gained respect and popularity that lasts today because of political positions that they publicly took. Andy Murray tweets about Scottish independence and receives vitriol off the scale. The man who ended the long wait for a British Wimbledon winner can’t even be guaranteed the support of a home crowd when playing the likes Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal.
Last Saturday at Wembley, England Captain Wayne Rooney became just one of nine men to have won 100 caps playing for the Three Lions. But the build up to the match focused, not on the longevity needed to perform on the biggest stage for more than a decade, but whether the achievement was even worthy of mention given Rooney has never won an international title. Perhaps attitudes to sport and its stars have been moulded by the austerity of the last five years. With the exception on the golden Olympic summer of 2012, the wider public have had greater concerns to focus on. Or maybe the sums of money involved at the high end of sport today are so abstract, that the pressures overcome or the hard work required to not only reach the top, but stay there, do not resonate.
Or maybe, just maybe, sport is paying the price of chasing the satellite TV money. Terrestrial television sport is limited to the sporting crown jewels – the Olympics, FA Cup final, Wimbledon, the World Cup and Grand National – and a few other events in between, meaning sports that once produced household names, who in turn inspired the general public, are no longer with us. Previous terrestrial staples like Football, Rugby Union, Rugby League, Formula One and Boxing, have all made their homes on Sky Sports, BT Sport and Box Nation. How then can kids be inspired if they never get a chance to see their heroes in action?
So I for one will raise a drink to Lewis, assuming all goes well in the desert. Just don’t expect others to join me.