Student sports writer who is worth studying

For a second year, the David Welch Student Sports Writer of the Year was announced at the SJA’s British Sports Journalism Awards last week. Oxford under-graduate JAMES GHEERBRANT, pictured below, took the honours.

Here, we reproduce one of his articles for Cherwell from last year which comprised his award-winning entry

James Gheerbrant: Student Sports Writer of the Year
James Gheerbrant: Student Sports Writer of the Year

There are some moments that could only belong to this Olympic year. Blazer-clad table-tennis officials processing into the Excel Centre to the thumping dubstep accompaniment of Labrinth’s Earthquake, for example. Somewhere across town, the unlikeliest of royalty cheques was heading for Labrinth’s letterbox, though sadly not bearing a stamp depicting one of Britain’s whiff-whaff whizkids, who had departed the competition with predictable haste.

I had come to Docklands’ gargantuan venue to watch a men’s quarter-final. The conference-centre was also accommodating several other sports, so, like the unfortunate kid forced to bunk down with the school bullies on a sixth-form field-trip, table-tennis’s Olympians were rooming with the world’s finest boxers, weightlifters and head-kicking taekwondoists. As terrifying roars of muscular aggression echoed around us, I settled into my seat to watch the subtle slice-and-dice artistry of ping-pong’s skinny aesthetes.

The compère cleared his throat. “From Germany, please welcome Dimitrij Ovtcharov!” This was immediately promising: a protagonist with a name so full of Slavic Bond-villain menace that we half-expected him to emerge with a swivelly glass-eye and a fluffy cat under one arm. We settled for a steely Teutonic glare. “And from Denmark, Michael Maze!” Maze too caught the attention, an unapologetically athletic figure in a game that sometimes feels self-regardingly cerebral, bounding into the arena with McEnroe-esque sweatbands adorning his wrists and forehead. It would not be our last glimpse of Superbrat.

In a venue more used to pie-charts than pies, the crowd suddenly whipped up an atmosphere worthy of the football terraces. Around the arena, in clusters of red and white, Danish and German fans revealed their allegiances, chanting, drumming, yelling and stomping their raucous encouragement, a glorious cacophony of good-natured partisanship all focused upon a single nine-feet-by-five table. It was brilliantly surreal, like watching a stadium rock crowd deliriously acclaim a lone xypholonist.

With the match underway, the players’ characters began to emerge: Ovtcharov the hotheaded aggressor, acclaiming each fizzing top-spin winner with a skipping yelp, like a scalded coyote. Maze, more defensive, a study in Nordic cool, his trendily stubbled features betraying no hint of delight or disappointment. The Carlsberg to Ovtcharov’s currywurst; a rivalry of delicious contrasts.

The first set went to Ovtcharov, 11-8, and Maze looked poised to level proceedings when he held two set points at 10-8 in the second. The first he squandered with an overcooked backhand; the second was lost in a moment of ineffable drama. Maze served, Ovtcharov flopped his return into the net, Maze celebrated. But then, from the umpire’s chair, a late and contentious call of let. In that theatrically suspenseful splitsecond, we read in the Dane’s previously inscrutable features the struggle between devil and angel. With the unstoppable momentum that only a man making a really regrettable decision can possess, he drew back his paddle in a baseball slugger’s arc and fairly clobbered the ball in the direction of the umpire. Yellow card, point penalty, ten-all. The next two points predictably went to Ovtcharov, and with them, surely, the match.

Maze retired to his corner and took his towel, a silent vortex of apoplexy swirling beneath the white terrycloth. He was now a lone crusader against the injustices of an inimical world. If he had been a Hollywood action-hero, this would have been the moment where he leapt through the plate-glass window with a machine-gun in each hand, Bon Jovi playing in the background, and started firing.

The reality was scarcely less dramatic. Winner after scintillating winner suddenly cracked off the Dane’s paddle, transformed into a weapon of such lethal force that we realised why they appear on the banned luggage list at airports. He took the third set by the barely believable score of 11-1 and, the initiative thus electrifyingly seized, edged the next two 11-9.

But like all good baddies, Ovtcharov proved infuriatingly hard to kill off. The German dug his fingernails into the cliff-face and clinched the sixth set with a swooping forehand. The Excel was now a seething cauldron of Olympic passion, simmering with the breathless heat of sport at its high-stakes, high-tempo, high-class best.

The final act: set seven progressed to 8-8. After four years of sacrifice and toil, the victor would effectively be decided by a playground game of best-of-five. We were in the realm of Kipling, one heap of all your winnings risked on one turn of pitch-and-toss. This was the Olympics in the raw. Two fabulously skilled competitors, dripping sweat, dreams on the line; a sport that could count its yearly column-inches on the fingers of one hand playing to an enthralled and enthused packed house.

Ovtcharov won it 11-9. At the moment of his triumph, I looked at the Danish fans massed in the row behind me. They were still smiling. It was one of those nights.

  • James Gheerbrant is a 22-year-old Oxford University undergraduate in the final year of his degree in French and German. He has acted as a weekly sports columnist for the student newspaper Cherwell, and has also worked as a journalist in Nantes and Berlin. He has a wide-ranging interest in sport, but particularly enjoys football, cricket and tennis

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