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Wiggins and the yellow jersey: sporting ‘personality’ for a cautious media age

23 July 2012

“Have a safe journey home and don’t get too drunk!” – the parting words of Bradley Wiggins, addressing the crowds along the Champs Elysées on Sunday, having just become the first Brit in history to win the Tour de France. His casual humour – as trademark as his weighty chops – was not undone by the weight of history being written; we have waited 99 years for a British success in the Tour and then we get first and second place and Brits end up with a third of all the stage victories. Unprecedented doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Wiggins is frequently apologetic about not being extensively media trained – throughout the tour he has offered up novel responses at the daily press calls with throw-away comments worthy of their own montage (and thankfully ITV4 has done precisely that). The quips are far removed from the usual crafted statements offered by most athletes – after a stage in which carpet tacks were thrown on the road, causing puncture and crashes, Wiggins suggested the police find the miscreants and send them to a football match.

In an era in which our sports stars are media trained to within an inch of their own identity, it is goose-bumpingly refreshing to find a very British icon rewriting the rules. And those who point out his lack of strategic media soundbite, are missing the fact that he does exactly what is needed in an interview – he gets his point across, and every interaction builds his brand.

In a few days time, we will witness a conveyor belt of Olympic hopefuls guardedly remarking that they are ‘taking it one day at a time’, winners will pay gracious respect to ‘tough competitors’ and losers will tip their hats to ‘worthy champions’. I’m personally excited about the unknown athletes scooping unforeseen successes. With no corporate backer and no experience of the media, there will be a few ‘bloody hell’ victory speeches to challenge the broadcasters.

Of course media training is needed – I even do it – and I believe everyone acting as a public face of an organisation, be it a multinational or a sports team, needs to be aware of how the media works and what opportunities and threats lie therein. Media training might have saved Kevin Keegan from making his furious rant against Manchester United in 1996 when he was manager of Newcastle – ‘I will love it if we beat them, LOVE it’ – fire gathering behind his eye balls as he pointed at the camera. They lost. And ad infinitum repeats of the interview have never let him forget it.

But imagine a Muhammad Ali who was told not to say ‘I’m gonna whip his butt’ and to instead roll out a ‘my robust training regime has led to a good opportunity to win this fight’. Personality much better suits the sponsor on your shirt than suspicion does.

I grew up watching the Tour de France – my childhood sporting heroes all came from intriguing foreign places and had equally exotic names – Fignon, Delgado, Indurain… and now we have very British cycling heroes; especially in Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish – the latter not only being World Champion but now also winner of the most Tour de France sprint victories in history. Cav has his own un-media-trained style – a sort of post-match mumble but one that can’t help but draw you to him.

The success of our British cyclists in the past few years, but especially at this Tour (and the upcoming Olympics hopefully), will no doubt lead to a step change in our nation’s psychological connection to cycling, and not only as a sport but as a form of transport and a daily aspect of our identify. But there will be enough blogs about that. So back to Wiggo… a die-hard mod you will see a lot of in the next few weeks and someone who appears to have already adopted the RAF roundel as part of his nickname…. his achievements in cycling now outstrip those of Chris Hoy, who received a knighthood – joining my list of premature honour recipients; headed by Sir Clive Woodward. I’m just saying.

Wiggins’ opening comment when stepping onto the winner’s podium on Sunday was to announce he would soon be ‘drawing the raffle prizes’. It was a light hearted touch that not only encapsulated his character but also pointed to his continued disbelief at the scale of his achievement – that ‘a boy from Kilburn’ should be standing in that spot. And it is the realisation of his dream to be there, and the manner of his recognition of it, which will lead to many more successes for kids with sporting dreams.