Essays: The British Miracle |
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The British Miracle

IN a proud week for Britain at the Winter Olympics, the BBC sports commentators were admirably restrained. Until quite near the end, of course, they had a lot to be restrained about.

Apart from Robin Cousins nobody at Lake Placid was burdened with the heavy tag of British Hope. There is no reason to be ashamed of this: Britain is a country with few mountains and, as far as I have been able to ascertain by asking around, only one ice-rink, open for training sessions before breakfast on alternate Wednesdays in January. It is something of a miracle that Cousins is up there at all. Everybody else in the British team fell into the category of gallant but doomed. Some of them fell into a lot more than that — the audience, for example. But there was no disgrace.

There was tragedy, of course. ‘And that ... is another tragedy for the British speed skaters.’ While these sentiments were being uttered, a British male speed skater could be seen sliding along on his nose. In another tragedy, a British female speed skater forgot to change lanes and scythed down the only Chinese female speed skater in existence. This was also a bit of a tragedy for China, but the BBC commentators did not make much of it. They responded better to the event that really was a tragedy, namely the enforced withdrawal of Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia from the pairs figure skating.

The field was left free for Rodnina and Zaitsev. Skating a bit less like a machine than usual — motherhood, we were assured, has mellowed her — Rodnina collected her umpteenth major title. She now has more gold on her sideboard than most Russians have in their teeth. I found myself admiring her at long last, after years of fretting at her lack of poetry. She is certainly an exceptional skater. But the lyricism which the Protopopovs brought to pairs skating lingers tenaciously in the memory. Whatever it was they had, Babilonia and Gardner have got it too, and I’m bound to say that I can’t get enough of it.

Anyway, Gardner came out for the warm-up and fell down. The contest was over before it began. Babilonia very understandably burst into tears. She looks terrific even doing that, but it was small compensation. On the other hand Annemarie Moser-Proell’s dreams came true. In the women’s downhill she creamed the opposition with an authority that left even David Vine bereft of speech.

So it went on, with the giants winning and everybody else taking part. The women’s luge was another tragedy for Britain. ‘What a disappointment for Avril Walker!’ The luge is pretty tricky anyway, since you have to lie on your back standing to attention with your head pointing up the hill while you are travelling very rapidly down it. Avril made things even harder for herself by falling off her luge. When it popped out from underneath her you got a chance to see what a luge looks like. It looks like an intra-uterine contraceptive device in an early stage of development.

All this time the BBC commentators had been doing their best to stay calm about Robin Cousins. They rarely mentioned him more than a thousand times a night. There were only a few hundred interviews with his parents, while whole hours went by without Robin himself being called to the camera. When he did speak, it was with a noticeable American accent — an indication that his gift has been brought to flower somewhere else than here. Nevertheless he is still one of us.

Finally it was the big night, or in our case the big early morning, since by the time they came out to skate on the East Coast it was time to be making your hot chocolate in London. Cousins went into the free skating considerably behind Jan Hoffmann of East Germany. Hoffmann has a mouth like a mako shark and the kind of top lip which, even after he has shaved it, still looks as if it is adorned with a moustache. Also it has by now become obvious that the only way he will ever get his hands on a good-looking costume is to defect. But he is a demon for technical merit. Cousins, we were constantly reminded, was up against it.

‘Now for the most important moments of the 1980 Winter Games for Great Britain!’ cried David Coleman, anchoring from London. Far away in Lake Placid, Cousins looked relaxed. ‘He’s looking really, really loose and relaxed,’ said Alan Weeks. A man called Emric said, ‘I always was a big fan from Robin Cousins.’ At this point Alan spotted Robin’s parents. ‘His mum and dad are sitting in the front row ... it must be a terrific thrill for them to see their son perhaps in a position of winning a gold medal.’ There was no arguing with that, but by this time the potential champion was on the ice. ‘There by the barrier ... that’s where he will set out from in his quest for the gold medal.’

Cousins skated, and for a few minutes sport crossed the uncertain border that it shares with art. Great bullfighters are supposed to link their passes with the cape into a flowing sequence which the appropriately sensitive spectator will experience as a unity, although what the bull thinks of it is another question. Great figure skaters do the same thing. Cousins has something of the melancholy grace once exemplified by Toller Cranston, the unsung hero of men’s figure skating in recent times. But more importantly he is the culmination of the long line of artist sportsmen — all of them pupils of Carlo Fassi — which leads back through John Curry to Peggy Fleming, the first skater to make an ‘artistic impression’ that you went on seeing after you closed your eyes.

Cousins muffed a triple, but otherwise got everything right. Hoffmann came on in a costume that was merely dreary, instead of hideous like the one he had worn in the short programme. (Those readers who have never been to the Soviet Union can get some idea of the prevailing standards of dress from the fact that Muscovites regard East Berlin as a fashion centre.) But Hoffmann knocked off the triples with the awesome precision of a fighter pilot swatting flies. He made the same artistic impression as a fringe theatre company producing a minor play by Brecht in the back room of a pub, yet there was no gainsaying his sheer athleticism. ‘Not the flair or the presentation of Robin Cousins,’ said Alan Weeks reassuringly, but there was a note of worry.

It was another age before the matter was decided, because other people had to skate and anyway even the computer needed time to think. The commentators trod warily. At 3.30 a.m. our time, Cousins was still being referred to as ‘possibly the new Olympic champion.’ David Coleman was on the rack. ‘The whole scene’s unbelievable. We still don’t know who’s won.’ Four o’clock loomed. ‘We feel that Robin Cousins is the man ... the judges still looking at that electronic machine.’ There was doubt right up until the moment when the medal was handed over. Alan Weeks found words to suit the magic. ‘And I hope the roar from Bristol won’t have sent a tidal wave down the Bristol Channel!’

The Observer, 24th February 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]