The legs, I was informed, belonged to somebody called Penny Lancaster
By Sebastian Coe (Filed: 24/05/2003)
The photographers’ flashes strafed the fading light around the concourse leading to the entrance of the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco. Every minute or so, a fleet of Mercedes delivered the members of the Laureas World Sports Academy, assorted friends, and celebrities to this week’s gala dinner which would unveil the winners of this year’s awards.
The sportsman and sportswoman prizes were won conclusively by Tour de France victor Lance Armstrong and Serena Williams, holder of all four grand slam titles.
On scaffolding, the photographers and journalists vied for the best shots and questions. It was an eclectic gathering - sports writers standing shoulder to shoulder with fashion writers and diary columnists, although when it comes to the questionable skills of the latter, I am reminded of the jazz man’s old chestnut: what do you call a bloke who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.
In turn, I stepped from my courtesy car making my way as quickly as I could to shelter, hoping to reach the entrance unmolested. I was doing quite well - only a few yards to go when trouble struck. “Seb, can we have a word?” I tried vainly to read the name of the media outlet on his accreditation. Unfortunately it had flipped over.
“What’s it feel like to rub shoulders with Hollywood?” I was momentarily lost for words, then recovered my poise. “I think it must be a great honour for them to meet people like Boris Becker and Michael Johnson tonight,” I said. Before he made a comeback, the air went white again as a late-middle-aged man turned up with his . . . errrrrr, niece? She got out of the car in instalments and following her legs emerged Rod Stewart.
The legs, I was informed, belonged to somebody called Penny Lancaster, who has just signed a lucrative lingerie deal. Nothing really wrong there. After all, Nadia Comaneci, a member of the Laureas Academy, signed one back in the 1980s. The difference of course is that, unlike Ms Lancaster, Comaneci also happens to be the greatest female gymnast of all time - and the perfect ‘10’.
The other female academy members are Dawn Fraser, Martina Navratilova, Yapeng Deng, the Chinese table tennis player who was ranked No 1 in the world for eight consecutive seasons, and the incomparable ice skater Katerina Witt. They were all led on to the stage by Morocco’s Nawal El Moutawakel, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic track title and who has done much to break down the barriers that so discouraged Muslim women from a life of sport.
She spoke with passion and clarity about the role of women in sport. Moments later, the stage was taken over by the Stewart-Lancaster double act. Stewart shared with us his own vision: “I’ve not seen a more spectacular sight since lying naked with Penny in bed this morning.” Clearly, not a man who works on a need-to-know basis. John McEnroe, who was MC for the evening, looked on uneasily.
It will not have been the first time, nor the last, that sport and ‘showbiz’, as my interrogator put it, rubbed shoulders. Sport is a natural magnet - I’m a celebrity, get me in there. Few politicians turn down the opportunity of a photo call with a winner. Sylvester Stallone pleaded with Nike to be put on a sporting rather than a celebrity contract as the hero of 75 celluloid rounds in the Rocky saga. Sixty years ago, Edith Piaf and boxer Marcel Cerdan stirred as much interest as Posh and Becks today. Sport, music and film are three of the international languages and the latter has sometimes produced moving and brutal sporting images. Riefenstahl’s historic film of the Berlin Games of 1936 stands ahead of the rest. Kon Ichikawa’s documentary from the Tokyo Games of 1964 got very close and the violence of Scorsese’s Raging Bull was both shocking and artistic. It is important that the unique drama that is sport permeates, influences and is portrayed in all these art forms.
But, and it’s a big ‘but’, don’t ever confuse Will Smith with Muhammad Ali or Robert De Niro with Marvin Hagler. And, conversely, when Carl Lewis flirted briefly with the recording studio, Marvin Gaye he wasn’t. They just don’t do the same things.
And while we drown in a sea of celebrity-based programmes, the difference between real achievement and portrayal becomes blurred. And it’s a difference that poses a real threat to the resolve, stickability and development of young sporting talent. Celebrity can be transient and on its own rarely underpinned by true ability. Why spend 10 years in the gym or on the court or pounding pavements before your first national vest, when on little or no talent you can star in Big Brother?
Hollywood can only dream of the confidence and kudos that derives from a pursuit where performance is objectively measured. The Laureas Academy installed Australian Para Olympian Michael Milton, the ski gold medallist from Salt Lake City, as disabled athlete of the year. Milton lost a leg after childhood cancer. I, for one, prefer to glory more in Milton’s achievements on one leg than Ms Lancaster’s appearance on stage on two.