My mother hates cycling. Bikes, according to her, are evil and deliberately throw you off, and I have literally never seen her ride or even sit on a bike, save the static Penny Farthing in the family photo album. So it would seem more than a little odd that last week she and I only slightly inadvertently spent a good chunk of our day watching the third stage of the Tour of Britain, a cycling race akin to the Tour de France, but much less Gallic.
And yet it was a brilliant day, and mum was far more excited about the race than I was, perfectly demonstrating the spectacularly British pastime of ‘watching sport’ despite not having a clue what’s going on.
This practice is very different to being a fan of a sport. There were undoubtedly hundreds of hard-core cycling fans milling around the grounds of Tatton Park, identifiable by their propensity for wearing lycra and their grimaces as their shiny and madly expensive bikes squelched through deer poo. But there were also the same number, if not more, of kids on normal bikes in normal clothes (and their parents); people who like cycling in as much as it’s a fun and/or practical way to get around, but don’t choose to spend their weekends irritating car drivers and motorbike riders on quaint country lanes, and there were more like my mum who seemed faintly bemused by the whole thing.
Having ambled around the stately home, which was the original purpose of our visit, we followed the crowds to the finish line, surrounded by stalls offering everything you could need to get on your bike, and also a fire engine from the 1930s, because why not. It was like a mini-festival; the local radio was blasting away through the loudspeakers, there were community choirs with pink feather boas, and everyone there was waiting for the spectacle of the elite riders zipping through on their first lap of the park, coming back three hours or so later to finish.
We waited for literally hours, me, who definitely falls into the ‘good fun but I wear jeans’ category of cyclists, and my mum, who can’t bear to watch the track racing in the Olympics in case they fall off. Mum was the one who was giddy with excitement, quite literally bouncing when she high fived a policeman on a motorbike. She amassed a sizeable collection of flags to wave and enthusiastically bashed the advertising boards at the request of the loudspeaker as we went live on ITV4.
It was, it has to be said, pretty damn impressive as the leaders whipped past us, a real case of blink and you’ll miss it. And even more impressive was the chasing peloton which came through six minutes later, including household name (even in our household) and famous mod, Sir Bradley Wiggins, whose name the kids next to us had been whispering eagerly for hours.
After the race had passed through for the first time we made a rapid beeline for the café (cake consumption also being a key aim for our day) and squeezed onto a table, where we were joined by a middle-aged couple because there was nowhere else to sit. The place was heaving.
It’s the same mentality that left the Bank View Cafe in Langsett resplendent in red and white spots after the Tour de France held a stage in Yorkshire in 2014. And why football was the only sport not to sell out in the 2012 Olympics. And why my parents and I deliberately diverted from our day’s plan in London to watch Mo Farah run the marathon. British people love watching sports.
Whilst this faintly baffling British tendency to wait around behind barriers or on pavements for hours purely for the chance to see some sweaty people go past them in some form or other suits us very well, coinciding wonderfully with our love of queuing, it doesn’t translate to the rest of the world, and this has rarely been clearer than at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
Although the worst-case scenario of almost total non-attendance for the Paralympics has happily been averted through a combination of crowd-funding and the pope, making it bigger than Beijing, the mostly empty stadia were painfully clear throughout the Olympics. In 2012, the streets were packed for the marathon races, as people grabbed the chance to see any form of Olympic event, but in Rio the runners progressed through practically deserted streets. In 2012 people became obsessed with things like Handball, discovering new sports with gentle amazement, but in 2016 the people of Brazil only seemed to get excited when Brazil was going to win.
And that is the fundamental difference in the sport-watching habits of Brits compared to much of the rest of the world. We don’t really care if we win or not. In fact, we enjoy watching matches when England (or Ireland, Scotland, Wales, GB…) aren’t even playing. I watched Scotland vs. the USA in the Rugby World Cup last year and it was brilliant, only partially because of the spectacular costumes of the US fans (I have never seen so many stars and stripes novelty glasses worn unironically). It might be because we’ve enjoyed decades of middling success at best that has developed our genuine curiosity for sport, but it seems to be a unique approach.
Obviously we pack the places when England (etc.) play, and particularly if they have a chance of winning. It’s why there are going to be two victory parades for the Olympians. But this idea of being successful in sport is still relatively novel to us – we are quite probably the only country in the world who is still proud enough of one tournament half a century ago to have stadium celebrations aired on national radio.
But our penchant for watching sports either out of curiosity or because we genuinely enjoy watching unknown people exert themselves in some unusual way is both endearingly British and important. It’s this sort of passive enjoyment that let the Olympic spirit grab us in 2012, and it’s why Lottery funding was granted to elite sport in 1997, which in turn has allowed our tiny nation to take on the behemoth of China and do better than them. Without the totally uninformed supporter, having a whale of a time with free flags, British sport would be much, much poorer.