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Why do Brits prefer weepers to winners?

Andy Murray’s tearful interview at Wimbledon endeared him more to the nation than being Britain’s best tennis player.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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A funny thing happened to Andy Murray last week. He lost a tennis match but won the nation’s hearts. Why? Because he blubbed.

Normally a Murray defeat is met with cries of ‘choker’ and ‘loser’. Normally it’s a pretext for us Brits to beat ourselves up over our sporting mediocrity. But not this time. This was Andy Murray’s Gazza moment. Muzza’s tears melted the hearts of the British public who, until now, hadn’t warmed to its best – possibly its greatest ever – tennis star.

You can learn a lot about national character by examining its sporting heroes. There are three routes to hero-status in Britain. Firstly, there are the genuine champions. Bobby Moore, Steve Redgrave, Daley Thompson, Ian Botham, Chris Hoy and, er… Help me out here. Are there any others? The problem is we’re not very good at this winning malarkey. Well, not in the most popular sports anyway.

That’s why we’re not particularly fussy about the legitimacy of a sport. If there’s a Brit atop the medal podium, it’s time to crack open the bubbly. Who cares if it’s a minority sport? Who cares that we don’t understand the rules? The nation huddles round its television sets whenever there’s a rare sniff of British success. An estimated 5.4million TV viewers watched Britain’s female curling team take Olympic gold in 2002. We weren’t even sure it was a sport. There were brooms, for god’s sake. But we put these doubts to one side to salute British champions. I’m sure very few people understand the technicalities of figure skating, yet a staggering 24million TV viewers watched Torvill and Dean’s triumph at the 1984 Winter Olympics.

The second – and very British – route to sporting hero status is to be a nutter. We’ll pretty much forgive any sporting flaw – losing, choking, missing penalties. All you have to do is perform a buffoonish dance a la David Brent and you’re an instant hero. Take Peter Crouch. Derided for years as a freak, all it took was one wacky robot-dance goal celebration and suddenly we were smitten. Paolo Di Canio loves Mussolini. So what? He’s a bit crazy, hotheaded and he shoves referees to the ground. Ergo we adore him. As I’ve argued before, Monty Panesar became a cult hero amongst English cricket fans as much for his clownish batting as for the quality of his spin bowling. Mario Balotelli is the latest nutter to acquire terrace-hero status. Stories about Balotelli’s eccentric antics abound. Some of them are true, many are apocryphal. But every new tale enhances the legend.

The third route to heroism is to shed tears in public. In these emotionally incontinent times, we’ve developed a taste for sporting heroes who can demonstrate their vulnerability. Gazza provided the template. He wept like a baby at Italia 90 and, in that key moment, football was reborn. Gazza was the most talented English footballer of his generation. But, thanks to injury and ill-discipline, he never quite touched the giddy heights of sporting greatness. Never mind, he wore plastic breasts and he blubbed. A double whammy which guaranteed him a place in the sporting pantheon.

Likewise, Andy Murray’s tearful speech on Wimbledon’s centre court instantly rebranded him in a way that no marketing agency could ever achieve. ‘As it turns out, with that speech, Andy Murray today has won more than any Wimbledon title is worth’, tweeted Eamonn Holmes. ‘He has won the hearts of the country.’

Although he is a far better tennis player than Tim Henman, the nation has been slow to warm to Andy Murray. There’s a generational divide here to a certain extent. Younger fans are attracted to his surly, indie-kid shtick. The fusty old Middle England types, who comprise the Revolutionary Guard of English tennis, regard him as surly and unkempt. ‘Why can’t he smile a bit more?’ they ask. Murray’s dry sense of humour is misinterpreted as dourness. When he was once asked if who he would be supporting in the 2006 World Cup finals, Murray quipped ‘anyone but England’. It was, as Murray explained, a bit of light-hearted banter aimed at Tim Henman. However, some people have never forgiven him, which just goes to show that the English are in no position to mock foreigners for not appreciating irony.

The preoccupation with Murray’s demeanour rather than, say, his first-serve percentage, is a typically tennis thing. Although there are no bonus points for charisma, tennis fans want more than just technical brilliance. They want clowns like Ilie Nastase or Henri Leconte. Pete Sampras, for example, never received the adoration he deserved because he was regarded as dull and machine-like. But Murray isn’t a meeter and greeter or a kid’s entertainer. His job is to win tennis matches not to charm people. The uber-cynic Charlie Brooker, put the case very well that Murray isn’t miserable but just normal. ‘The people who want Murray to smile are the same ones who try to make me dance at weddings. They want the world to conspicuously enjoy itself in a manner of their choosing, and they turn vaguely sanctimonious when they encounter pockets of resistance, as though their definition of fun is the only one that matters.’

Brooker was, however, only partially correct. The demand that we emote publicly in a particular way is coercive. But this isn’t about enforced smiling. A bit of blubbing will do the trick. After all, tearfulness is next to godliness in our therapeutic age. It’s also the case that some emotions are more equal than others. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, Murray’s problem was not a lack of emotion but the wrong kind of emotion. ‘Anger is an emotion, too’, he wrote. ‘So is desire, anguish, boldness, disappointment, shame, zeal. And Murray has been exhibiting all of those emotions and more throughout his eight-year professional career.’

Murray, to his credit, had the good grace to apologise to Roger Federer for crying. ‘I just said to him, “Sorry. I didn’t obviously want that to happen”. You feel like you’re kind of attention seeking or something. It was not like that at all.’ He also refused to parade the runners-up trophy afterwards and hastily retreated to the locker room. Quite right too. We should admire Andy Murray for his desire to win and his hatred of coming second, not his failure to hold back the tears.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics

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