The John Griff column: All Hail The Lionhearted!
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For starters, I don’t think it has to mean anything nationalistic, regardless of how many lions - or lionesses - we might choose to wear on our clothing. When he was racing for the Ferrari team, the F1 tifosi (die-hard fans of the Scuderia) called Nigel Mansell ‘Il Leone’, simply because to them he was never a quitter and gave 100% at every race, even if his car didn’t. MGM always have a lion roaring through the introductory frames of every film it produces – being, for the corporation, an indication of quality - The King of the Beasts, who effectively roars his approval to their production every time the film plays. Others criticise the use of the lion as a logo or an emblem as being anachronistic, given Great Britain’s perceived reduced status within the world order. Is it an unfair criticism? That, I leave to your own view.
But what about lionHEARTED? That, I suggest, is a different matter altogether.
Over the past few weeks and months, we have seen remarkable performances from a variety of individuals, either as members of sporting squads, solo performers bearing a team name or shirt, or just people defying the odds to conquer their own challenges on their own terms. The obvious and topical example is that of the England’s Women’s Football Team who have arguably moved the nation’s opinion of the beautiful game played by women along the scale (thousands of spectators at the MK stadium for last year’s UEFA’s Women’s Euros and 75,000 in the stadium last Sunday down under cannot be collectively deluded, surely) and provided an inspirational spark that sporting clubs the length and breadth of the country MUST now feed to turn into the brightest of flames. It didn’t happen after the London Olympics of 2012. Repeatedly I interviewed local sports clubs from a variety of disciplines which had anticipated being inundated by a post-games tidal wave of people interested in their sports that year. It didn’t happen. Instead, they waited in vain rather than getting out and grabbing by the throat the opportunity which DID present itself. That same opportunity now exists again - and I will bet you that in every country which took part in the Women’s World Cup, campaigns will be mounted not only to incentivise existing communities but to search for and develop future local, regional or possibly national stars. Spain might have proved to be the better team on the final scoresheet - but the true winners of the World Cup will be those who can capture the mind - and the hearts - of those who wish to take those opportunities up to become players themselves at whatever level.
And it really is a case of ‘at whatever level’ - the bar doesn’t have to start high provided the effort starts somewhere. It’s not only the young who can make the most of those opportunities either. An increasing number of sports are being played by both sexes (if not across the entire gender scale, in fact) at a reduced pace in order to appeal to those who wish to participate in later life, but still actively. One of the high street banks made much of walking football in an advertising campaign some years ago - it helped polish their corporate image as a bank for all ages and promoted what was a fledgling sport. It showed the way to other sports to do the same by spotlighting their contributions to society. Now, we know much more about seated volleyball, wheelchair rugby (which is hugely exciting to watch) wheelchair tennis (ditto) and others. It’s more than being about inclusion too. I wrote and spoke recently about how watching netball at the World Cup in Liverpool a few years ago spurred me on to buy tickets for Lois and I to go and see it played at last year’s Commonwealth Games and then be glued to the television for last month’s World Cup tournament as England’s Roses got ever closer to the final.
In the event, and just was the case for both the Lionesses and the Roses, England came away as the vanquished rather than victors. Painful to watch? Of course – and on both occasions we had dared to dream, based on superlative performances on the way to the finals of both sports. Did we really lose though? On paper, perhaps. But in the longer term, I’d argue not. There is pride to be had in representing any community by bearing its name or wearing its shirt. In the case of the Lionesses, just getting to the final represented a new summit for the sport in this country and excellence from the individual squad members who can justifiably hold their heads high. The same can be said of team coach Sarina Wiegman. Already asked whether she will be with the team when the next World Cup rolls round in 2027 (her England contract falls due for renewal in 2025), she simply replied that she had no plans to look or go anywhere else. Lionhearted? It certainly looks like it.
Lest this all looks overly football-centric, let’s consider the World Athletics Championships which started in Budapest last weekend, just as the World Cup was reaching its zenith. After highly public heartbreak at the Tokyo Olympics, a career-threatening ruptured Achilles before them and nagging self-doubt throughout, Katarina Johnson-Thompson roared home to gold in the heptathlon with about as good an encouragement for Paris 2024 as any athlete could possibly wish for. A solo performance for Team GB, hers is right up there as an inspirational statement of self-intent and for the nation too. For the Lionesses, despite having been beaten in the World Cup final, they will undoubtedly regroup and return to compete again, aiming to go one step higher on the podium at the next opportunity. And why shouldn’t they?
Just as a heart is found inside the body, it’s where you’ll find the essence of being lionhearted. Every one of us has that potential in whatever sphere - we just have to believe it, find it and hold on to it.