Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A Tale Of Two Sirs: Team Sky

The first time I ever interviewed (I use the word in the loosest sense) a leading sports figure was when I was nine years old. "Will you play for England?" was my question. My interlocutor was non-committal. He was ever so humble. He was Basil D'Oliviera. I wanted his autograph. But I was, even at nine years of age, intrigued by him. Who was he? Why was he?

D'Oliveira had a back story that was unique. It was one from a different time and he was someone from a different era. Had his story been one from today, it would be analysed and discussed in a constant flurry of internet dissection. He himself would be scrutinised, followed, watched by an insatiable media. The scandal of his initial non-selection for South Africa would have been headlines for weeks, not just the day or two that it was in 1968. There would have been many more John Arlotts indignant at his treatment and dismissive of the cricketing establishment.

Keven Pietersen is, in a way, the current-day D'Oliveira, but only because of his South African connection. And as is the way of the current day, there is nothing we don't know of his story or believe that we don't know. Pietersen's uneasy relationship with the media stems from what the media believes him to be, even if he isn't, but it also stems from his own contrariness. His treatment is a product of his own complexities.

Pietersen, even before he was thrust under the Ashes-winning spotlight in 2005, was known about and discussed and analysed. The rights and wrongs of his qualification for England were as important as what we already thought we knew about him as a person; there were those stories of course of difficulties in the Nottinghamshire dressing-room. He has lived under that spotlight ever since. He didn't simply go from being an unknown to a highly known. He was always known.

Contrast him with Bradley Wiggins. Here is a sporting character with his own complexities, ones that were not exposed until he was suddenly under the spotlight. They were ones that caused him to suffer. I met him yesterday. He as much as admitted that he couldn't handle all that came along in 2012.

I had expected someone who might be stand-offish. One forms impressions, even if they are wrong ones. An at-times uneasy relationship with the media stems not just from his personality but also from all the baggage that his sport drags around with itself: the constant weight of doping insinuations that pull the bike back. Getting inside the head of Bradley Wiggins is a task for someone more intimately engaged with his sport and with him than for me, but in his media session in Alcúdia yesterday, one was able to get an inkling of what there is in that head.

Articulate and self-analytical, he veers between the humble and the boastful, but the boastful comes with a rider - "fuck it", why shouldn't I blow my own trumpet? Indeed, why shouldn't he? There was much that struck a chord and which I shall relate in an article for the "Majorca Daily Bulletin", but for now, there was one thing in particular that stood out. It was an epiphany moment that came from watching the film "Gladiator". I had to win to gain my freedom. I shall try and explain in that article.

Sir Dave Brailsford is the team principal of Team Sky. Again, impressions formed beforehand can be misleading. Brailsford, one might imagine, is a rather joyless egg-head, guided by data and management/sports science. Initially, I thought he might be a tough egg to crack. Was he interested in talking or not? Perhaps he thought he would be asked about the merely trivial. So I didn't. I wanted to know about how new riders were processed into the team. It was a good question, he said, and a difficult one. You find something that is important, and once you find it then an interview becomes that much easier. The interviewee is on your side. And then you ask about the most important subject of all. The interviewee himself.

You can gain only a small insight over the course of a total of half an hour into the minds of leading sportspeople. But some insight there was. More of it, therefore, to come.

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