Andy Murray reached his first Wimbledon final this summer and lost. Yet to win a Grand Slam, a man widely considered unfortunate to be born in the all-dominant era of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic oligopoly, he was crestfallen as you might well have expected him to be. His frustration and disappointment surged through his veins, looking for a form of emotional release. Desperately trying to maintain some resolve and composure, he battled in vain as the BBC’s Sue Barker emerged toting a microphone as readily as a wreath at a wake, to expose his feelings for our entertainment. Murray responded with an outpour that flooded through to the audience both in person and at home, for this – said the presenter, the microphone, the camera, the audience – was the time to cry.
Imagine for a moment that you had never watched any televised sport before, and you might find Murray’s post-match tears to be even more unusual, stripped of the context of sporting theatre. It’s just weird isn’t it? ‘This is the bit where you cry’, Barker intoned wordlessly, in much the same way that Simon Cowell would do to a feckless meat puppet on X-Factor, or some gaily-coiffed runner would to the falsely-entitled humanity-voids on The Only Way Is Essex. We discovered last week that Uefa had manipulated video footage of a German woman to imply that she was crying at her team going two goals down against Italy at Euro 2012, when she had actually been moved by the pre-match national anthem.
Such an event is endemic of a vicious circle, where TV executives are so eager to demonstrate their own understanding of the emotional register of sport that it perpetuates the notion that viewers are too stupid to follow the action without obvious, sign-posted events. We have reached the point where tears have been stripped of genuine feeling and restyled as a televisual simulacrum, an artificial construct that gets in the way of life. A bit like wanking with chopsticks*.
It seems especially cruel that such a public purging of sadness would be required of Murray, a man who tries so hard and fails not just simply to win, but to keep his emotions in check. It seems that very few people dislike him because of his tennis; people dislike Murray for his gruff personality, the detached aloofness of someone striving for lofty ambitions. As such, his tears served as some form of emotional penance to a public with whom he has endured a sometimes fractious courtship. ‘We shall have our tears, for it is the least we deserve’, bellowed inwardly the voices of the audience who watched the Scot be pulled hither and thither (in no particular order) across centre court, the kitten to Federer’s wool-master. For them, the spectral promise of Murray’s tears was included in the ticket price.
The front page of the following day’s London Metro splashed with the headline ‘New bawls please!’, accompanied by pictures of Murray and his girlfriend (a woman!) crying, as if this were more important, more newsworthy, than the defeat itself. It emerged as a form of damage control, as if trying to retrieve a Pyrrhic victory from the burnt ashes of defeat – he may have failed to win a championship, but he’s not ashamed to cry, huzzah! A more committed pop-psychologist than I would tell you that this is the birth-right of an emotionally repressed nation. Watching a sportsman cry carries the inherent implication of emotional ownership, in the same way that the ‘shoulder to cry on’ in a relationship might expect to have greater claim to the affections of a wronged lover. The most prominent example of this form of collective national grieving is the reaction to the death of Princess Diana, memorably derided by the comedian Stewart Lee as “the hysterical, over-emotional, shrieking grief of twats”. Hysterical or not, this shared catharsis served to emotionally galvanise a collective, in order to rally behind a mutual cause. In the case of Diana, the people wanted the Queen to lay her feelings bare and share in their mourning (as well as to make practical use of commemorative ALF dolls.)
In the realm of football, a similar effect was achieved via the tears of Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90, the Citizen Kane of sporting sorrow. Gascoigne’s tears have restrospectively been credited with restoring a lustre to the national game that had been lost in the wake of Heysel, Hillsborough and Thatcher’s Britain. The unreleased sequel came eight years later in a La Manga hotel room pulsing with the soothing muzak of Kenny G, as Glen Hoddle omitted him from his World Cup squad. We had to make do with third party accounts and biographical anecdotes, but we gathered enough information to discover that, yes, he cried again. To be denied such high-profile sporting tears! That we never saw them instead on a French football pitch is one of the lost masterworks of British sporting sadness, Gazza’s swollen, chubby-ducted eyes the equivalent of a bloated Orson Welles, forever to claim relevance despite waddling his way through a middling spell at Everton, as Welles did with Transformers voiceovers.
This is not to sneer at sportsmen showing emotion. The history of sport is awash with moments remembered as much for the tears as the stories they tell – Derek Redmond’s physical and emotional breakdown, Jana Novotna and the Duchess of Kent at Wimbledon, and, yes, Gazza missing out on a World Cup final. The difference is that tears have since been commodified, becoming the TV producer’s stock-in-trade, a visual shorthand that batters the viewer with a mallet marked IMPORTANT TELEVISION MOMENT. Future generations may never resonate with the feelings of a sportsman in the same way that past generations have. Perhaps one day prizes will be given for ‘Best Sporting Tears’, in the way that trophies for such categories as ‘Like, uhm, Best Kiss, y’know, whatever?’ are lapped up by whooping idiots at the MTV Awards.
The World is currently unzipping its fly in anticipation of the sporting gangbang that is the Olympics, and there will be more tears, no doubt stage-managed beyond the point of pathos. Should the likes of Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Philips Idowu fail to collect the medals implicitly promised by years of media hype, they will be probed and prodded to the point of tears, like a piñata exploding at the point of optimum release. If we cannot triumph vicariously through their victory, we must commiserate equally through their failure, as we did with Murray. Anything less would be pointless. It would be unsporting. It would be un-British.