How Winning Ways Can Lift a Nation's Heart

Article excerpt

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F THE Cheltenham Festival does go ahead later this month, then it will be a hollow victory for racing over the ravages of foot and mouth disease.

Irish trainers have said they will not be coming and, without them and their horses, Cheltenham will lack the vibrancy and soul that makes it so special in the first place.

If there is no Istabraq, then there will be no festival worthy of the name. There may be some races, some trophies and even a Gold Cup to present, but this will not be a proper Cheltenham Festival. Better, surely, to delay the races until the Irish feel safe to come back.

For, while Cheltenham may be in Gloucestershire, the festival is an Irish event. It unites the interest of a country in the way that only sport can, crossing boundaries of class and geography. And that, above all, is what sport is about.

In Adelaide last week, Don Bradman's funeral procession brought a nation to a standstill. As the hearse edged through the city streets, it was greeted with flowers and applause.

A pair of teenagers raised cricket bats to salute him in the manner of a batsman registering his century. An elderly lady wiped back a tear and the prime minister, John Howard, who was visibly upset when commenting on Bradman's death a week ago, joined the private service.

Australia was brought together in grief. A few days later, in a wildly contrasting fashion, England found its own sense of unity when the national football team finally discovered a sense of purpose. When England win a match, the nation celebrates, and when they triumph against a team as well respected as Spain then the celebrations carry an extra potency.

The fact that it was Sven-Goran Eriksson's first match in charge created its own excitement, but the mood of celebration that swept through English football in the aftermath was not just a vindication of the decision to bring in a foreign coach, but a reflection of how much football continues to mean to the British nation.

Sport bonds together this nation just as surely as it does in Australia. It creates passion, argument, loyalty and dissent in equal quantities, and it has developed into a significant aspect of political debate. …