Mike Rowbottom: Beckham and Farah – everyday tales of athletes and celebrity
Saturday, 30 June 2012
Speaking to the former England football captain last month in Athens, where he joined the official British party during the handing over and transfer of the Olympic Torch, it was obvious how desperate he was to get the nod from the Team GB coach, Stuart Pearce, who had travelled out to the United States a few weeks earlier to watch him playing for LA Galaxy.
When I asked him if Pearce had caught him on a good day, the response betrayed more than a trace of anxiety. "He could have caught me on a better day," Beckham replied with a rueful smile. "He obviously could have caught me on a worse day. For the team it was a bad day. But he knows what my fitness is like, he knows what my passion is like as well, so – we'll see..."
And now Beckham (pictured below) knows. At 37, he will be representing his country at the London Olympics as an ambassador, rather than a wide-right player of immense guile and experience. With, who knows, perhaps one other beacon of hope?
Beckham's response to the unofficial news that he will not be one of the three players over the age of 23 allowed in the 18-man squad – "Naturally I am very disappointed, but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me" – has been measured and dignified. And run through a classic PR process. Other reports have described the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star as being "devastated".
The decision, it is fair to say, has been greeted with widespread surprise and dismay. For some reason it put me in mind of the IOC session in Copenhagen in 2009 when the voting took place to select the host nation of the 2016 Olympics. President Obama and the First Lady had travelled to Denmark and espoused the cause of Chicago with persuasive force – only for the US candidate to be bombed out in the first round of voting, to a huge gasp in the Bella Conference Centre auditorium.
Many have argued, and do argue, that Beckham has never performed for his country as he has for his clubs. That, I think, is unfair. The truth is, his clubs have usually operated far better as teams than England has in recent years. His last-gasp equaliser against Greece in October 2001, which earned England's qualification for the 2002 World Cup finals, was probably his most telling contribution to the national cause and no more than a fitting emblem of his enduring commitment to the cause on that important day.
But more than a decade on, the case for Beckham's inclusion in the British team for the London Olympics has been inextricably linked with a debate about the basis on which he might be picked – would it be as a player or as an iconic brand?
When that question was raised with Beckham in Athens, with the word "glamour" also being inserted, it earned a swift and pretty cross response.
"I've always found that question a little bit disrespectful," Beckham said. "I don't want to be picked on a shirt sale or as a stadium-filler. I want to be picked on what I can bring to the team. It's what happened throughout my career and I don't want that to change."
On that basis, he cannot really complain – especially if, as has been reported, it came down to a decision between playing him or his old Manchester United colleague Ryan Giggs, who missed out on collecting a 13th Premier League winners' medal this year by a matter of goal difference.
The news about Beckham has come in a week where another debate, albeit in a lower key, has been taking place over the status of Mo Farah – who, on Wednesday night, became the first man to retain the European 5,000 metres title and is now homing in on a twin 5,000/10,000m challenge at the London Olympics.
Farah's decision to run only the heats of the 1,500m at last weekend's Olympic trials in Birmingham, and the trademark "Mobot" celebration (pictured above) in which he engaged while 100 metres from the finish line, have both been criticised, most fiercely by former British 1,500m runner Anthony Whiteman (pictured below).
Whiteman's column in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph firstly accused a "showboating" Farah of being "disrespectful" to the athletes he beat in Birmingham, of whom the 40-year-old was one. The former international also criticised Farah's decision not to run in the final: "That is moving away from athletics and towards celebrity. Jessica Ennis would not have done that – she is an athlete first and a celebrity second."
The "Mobot" – which involves Farah forming an M-shape over his head with both arms – came into being when he appeared on the Sky One show A League Of Their Own. Its presenter, James Corden, suggested that the Londoner should get himself a trademark pose along the lines of Usain Bolt; fellow guest Clare Balding had the idea of the YMCA-style letter shape and Corden thought up the name.
Clearly it was something conceived of in a light-hearted, rather than commercial, spirit. Farah has insisted the Mobot's appearance in Birmingham was not intended to be disrespectful to fellow athletes and he has also apologised to any spectators who might have bought tickets expecting to see him run in the 1500m final.
Farah is a hugely talented athlete and a lovely character. But while he meant no disrespect by running a 1500m heat at the trials before concentrating on a prize worth far more than a national title, he has inevitably disrespected the weekend's competition by that choice of action.
In July 1995, Britain's reigning world 110m hurdles champion and world record holder, Colin Jackson, ran just one round of the 100m sprint at the national championships at the same Alexander Stadium track in Birmingham before withdrawing and then racing on the same weekend in Italy.
That caused such a row that Jackson and the national federation became involved in a stand-off, and the hurdler did not defend his world title that year. While Jackson maintained that he had withdrawn because of injury, but had then competed on the Sunday in order to put it to the test after intensive treatment, his actions were seen as a snub to the trials.
Farah is not a celebrity. He is someone rightly famous for his athletic talent and pleasing personality. But last weekend he took a little step down a road he would be better retreating from – and, to be fair, that retreat, with suitable apologies, has already been made.
Beckham is a celebrity, and some feel he has paid a heavy price for it this week. But he is, one hopes, still enough of a footballer to recognise that the decision made has been, essentially, a footballing one.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.