On Sunday we heard the sad news that Sir Roger Bannister, the first man to run a sub four-minute mile, had passed away.
Sir Roger’s life was truly a model for how sportsmen and women should conduct themselves. Indeed, we should all follow his example of honesty, decency, self-effacement and public service.
He never cheated. He never lied. He never made a penny out of his sport.
Sir Roger came from that magnificent post-war generation which could be relied on to serve others and do the right thing.
What a haunting irony that news of his death should have come through just hours before another sporting knight, Sir Bradley Wiggins, was condemned by MPs who allege he was given drugs which may have enhanced his performance as a top-level cyclist.
Sir Roger Bannister came from that magnificent post-war generation which could be relied on to serve others and do the right thing
Wiggins — who denies he is a drugs cheat and says he is a victim of a smear campaign — was the first Briton to win the Tour de France, in 2012.
How we all marvelled at the time that a Brit had taken on the French at their national sport and emerged victorious. But how devastating to learn that he stands accused of using asthma medication which may have improved his chances of winning.
Let’s compare and contrast Sir Bradley and Sir Roger. They have both been lauded as true British heroes — but now the peculiar coincidence of this week’s news stories has cast them in a very different light.
One was the supreme amateur sportsman, the other a man who, despite his denials, could be condemned by posterity as a professional cheat.
Half a century divides the two — and an entire moral universe. In the difference between them we can detect so much that has changed — and not for the better — in modern Britain.
There’s no question that Bradley Wiggins was an extraordinary sportsman, with real guts and motivation. He came up the hard way from a tough London childhood, and it’s worth remembering that he is far from the only sportsman in the hugely competitive world of professional cycling to stand accused of resorting to subterfuge to gain an advantage.
For him, it seems, winning was all that mattered.
And let’s not fool ourselves that the sport of cycling is unique. Modern British sport is full of competitors who are, in some ways, just as questionable as Sir Bradley Wiggins and the Sky team he rode for.
Sir Bradley Wiggins, pictured here celebrating his 2012 Tour De France win, took drugs to boost his performance before the event, a devastating report said
Remember that the centre forward who dives in the penalty box to fool the referee into giving a penalty he doesn’t deserve is setting a dreadful example for the millions of young sports fans who worship him.
The top-class cricketer, who would rather make easy money in glitzy T20 cricket than represent his country in the grind of a Test match, sends out a cynical message about the priorities that drive so much modern sport.
These kinds of behaviour were utterly unthinkable to the men and women of Roger Bannister’s generation. And sadly we are talking about a modern moral sickness which goes far deeper than merely sport.
I’m a political correspondent and can testify that the same culture of amorality which threatens to ruin British sport has also captured British politics.
Today’s generation of politicians cynically tell lies, cheat on their expenses and break the rules to win elections. They, too, send out the broader message that the ends justify the means in the cut-throat modern world.
Such behaviour in the corridors of power — the same corridors of power from which the Iraq War was launched on a falsehood in 2003 — bears poor comparison with the political giants of the past who put Britain’s interests above all else.
This was brought home to us yesterday morning when we woke to hear that Gary Oldman had won an Oscar for his vivid portrayal of Winston Churchill in Britain’s darkest hour, when we stood alone against Hitler and German fascism in 1940.
Churchill was again prime minister in 1954 when Bannister ran his sub four-minute mile. What were the qualities which led him to lead the fight against fascism 70 years ago? It was bloody-minded principle and patriotism. Inexhaustible honesty.
Gary Oldman won an Oscar for his vivid portrayal of Winston Churchill (pictured) in Britain’s darkest hour, when we stood alone against Hitler and German fascism in 1940
Throughout Churchill’s 60-year career, he always acted politically because he believed what he was doing was right. He was never afraid to be unpopular or stand alone.
Short-term political advantage was the last thing in his mind.
Churchill would have been utterly baffled by the dark arts of modern-day politicians, who won’t lift a finger or utter a word until focus groups and opinion polls have reassured them that they’re on the winning side.
And Churchill would have no more put up with modern spin doctors than Sir Roger Bannister would have endured for a second the secretive and now highly suspicious methods apparently employed by Team Sky in the preparation of their champion.
Is not Sky boss Sir David Brailsford the equivalent of today’s political spin doctors in the way he has sought to dissemble over the contents of a Jiffy bag delivered to Bradley Wiggins at a race on the Continent?
Ten years ago, I fulfilled a dream and wrote the biography of my childhood sporting hero, the extraordinary cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, who as a ‘coloured’ South African was unable to play for his native country.
Basil was forced to come to England where, through his hard work and raw talent he forced his way into our national Test team.
He then found himself involved in a venal web of bribery, intrigue and political pressure as South African prime minister John Vorster set to work preventing D’Oliveira’s selection in the team to tour South Africa.
Vorster knew that if ‘Dolly’ was chosen, his selection would send out the message that Apartheid was an evil system.
Churchill would have been baffled by the dark arts of modern-day politicians, who won’t lift a finger until focus groups and opinion polls have reassured them they’re on the winning side
From where did D’Oliveira get the bottomless integrity which enabled him to turn down those bribes, and thus change the course of history? A fundamental inner decency, is the answer.
But Basil D’Oliveira came from a different generation. We are talking of an age when Bobby Moore was the captain of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup.
Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and the rest of those immortals played above all for the love of the game and pure patriotism in an age when footballers were lucky to earn a hundred pounds a week.
Today, a hundred thousand pounds a week is commonplace, and brilliant sportsmen are taught that it’s normal and OK to cheat.
You might dismiss the stories about Bradley Wiggins as being something for the back pages of the newspapers. But you would be wrong.
For I believe that sport tells us something deep about the country where it is played.
Those joyful Brazilian football teams have always reflected the exuberant and carefree qualities of Brazil itself. Likewise, the joyless athletes of Cold War Russia and eastern Europe, with their industrial-scale doping, told us everything we needed to know about Communism.
There was an innocence and a joy about Sir Roger Bannister’s sporting success. He did his running for love of athletics and not to make money.
That’s why he quit athletics at the height of his sporting prowess in order to go on to a distinguished career as a neurologist at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, and master of Pembroke College, Oxford.
In stark contrast, the devastating questions which now hang over Bradley Wiggins’s sporting triumphs surely say much about a society in which something has gone very wrong indeed.