My Ayrton-Senna-as-panto-villain stance had never been properly challenged until I saw a preview of Asif Kapadia’s upcoming documentary
I have only the vaguest idea where I was when Princess Diana died, and hopefully you’ll have guessed from the photo that I wasn’t around for JFK. But I remember exactly where I heard about Ayrton Senna’s death. I was in my dad’s Volvo 245 Estate on the A1081 from St Albans to Harpenden, coming home from choir rehearsal. We’d seen him crash, live on television, earlier in the afternoon. They hadn’t shown a replay. Now, two hours later, a radio bulletin was explaining that his brain injuries had been too severe for him to survive.
I remember feeling surprised and even a little guilty as the tears formed in my 15-year-old eyes, and Dad drove on in respectful silence. Senna, it’s fair to say, had not been a much-loved figure in our household, and it felt hypocritical, perhaps, to feel as shaken and sad as I did.
I’d grown up in a house that had pretty strong views about decent, sportsmanlike behaviour. As a teen who tended to absorb, then exaggerate, my parents’ frankly given opinions on sport, the name Senna was closely linked in my mind with the words “arrogant” and “sonavabitch”. We were also a family who valued a robust work ethic above exotic flair, and Senna was not only a foreigner who refused to play by the rules, but he was also the man who kept beating Nigel Mansell. In my family, when it came to heroes, a thrillingly maverick Brazilian playboy was never going to compete with a British ex-bobby whose upper lip bristled like a shoe brush.
My Senna-as-panto-villain stance had never been properly challenged until last week, when I saw a preview of Asif Kapadia’s upcoming documentary, Senna, and scales fell. Sure, it’s a loving and skilfully crafted homage to a man who was the film-maker’s own sporting hero, and as suggestible as my teenage self. But this was more than that. I found myself not only questioning what I thought I knew about F1, but falling in love with a sportsman who I’d been perfectly happy to loathe the first time around.
Senna’s rivalry with Prost, so petty in my imagination, took on a grand, epic sweep. His frustrated complaints at the political decisions that went against him seemed, for the first time, justified. The pure joy he found at the wheel was intoxicating to witness. Even the Brazilian’s trademark arrogance resonated mystically; after an almost miraculous come-from-behind victory in the 1988 Japanese grand prix to win the drivers’ championship, he tells the press: “I saw God.” And of course I realised, 16 years too late, another truth: Senna was hot.
It’s not the only sports documentary to mess with my mind this month. Another excellent film about to hit the big screen is Fire in Babylon, which traces the West Indies’ record-breaking, 16-year undefeated spell back to its origins in the late 1970s under the captain Clive Lloyd. What’s fascinating about it is that, despite a credit roll that thanks everyone from David Gower and Tony Greig to Shane Warne and Michael Vaughan, not a single white face appears on screen to reminisce or analyse.
This is one of the greatest stories in Test cricket told from a purely West Indian point of view, and, like the Senna film, it forces you to re-evaluate a period of sporting history you thought you knew, to experience it in a different way. For the first time, the narrative isn’t about white guys getting hurt (although there’s plenty of that), and no one asks a black-eyed Mike Gatting where exactly the ball hit him. For once, the 1984 Blackwash doesn’t seem an inevitability. And the terrifying Andy Roberts even reveals himself to be capable of smiling.
We’re in an era when seasons and tournaments overlap in bursts of self-importance, a never-ending firework display; where players’ autobiographies fill supermarket shelves like prepackaged offal. In the current atmosphere, perspective is a disappearing commodity. It’s rare that we have the opportunity to see sporting events outside the prism of our own fan narrative, to realise that the stories around which we base our identities have been moulded and cannibalised by our personal experience of winning or losing.
Still, as a friend pointed out, where does all this revisionism end? Maybe a 2050 documentary on the Tour de France’s doping years will look back fondly on the cyclists who bravely risked their health and livelihoods to bring us pioneering physical feats. Perhaps we’re looking at a future where Alan Shearer is revealed as an acute-minded, fleet-footed footballing aesthete. If I were Steve McClaren, I’d be getting on the phone to Working Title right now.