NEXT time we win at anything, keep the victorious team away from Trafalgar Square. Keep them away from Downing Street. Keep them away from Buckingham Palace. And keep them away from the Parkinson studio. To judge from the calamities that have overtaken England’s World Cup-winning rugby union team, the Great Britain Olympians and now the England cricket team, it seems that we are unable to fête our sporting heroes without it going to their heads. It is the new British disease.
The ancient Greeks had a word for it: hubris. This concept was well understood by Sophocles, the Athenian playwright, who spent his time writing tragedies unified by the theme of divine retribution meted out to those with their heads up their backsides. In the dramatic competitions of the Festival of Dionysus, he won a succession of first prizes by building his narratives around the saying: “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make proud.”
British sportsmen do not need the gods — they are able to destroy themselves unaided. The problem is that they buy the hype. After a few days of post-World Cup limelight, the England rugby boys were strutting around like matinee idols for whom hard training — the very thing that had brought them success — was a distraction from the real business of being lionised by the media.