Boris Johnson’s crafty use of the theatre of sport eased his rise to the top
Tory leader entered the subconscious of the British public, disarming everyone as he went
Boris Johnson waves the Olympic flag before passing it over to IOC President Jacques Rogge, who passes it to Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes during the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Photograph: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
If Roger Federer, framed in summery elegance against the lengthening half-past-five shadows of Wimbledon’s Centre Court, represents the pinnacle of sporting aesthetic beauty, then Boris Johnson with racket is hand is the inverse: tennis as the art of brutality.
Whether standing on the baseline or stampeding towards the net, Johnson strips every notion of finesse or delicacy from the game, instead going about his business with murderous intent and using every pound of that big frame to not only return the serve but to obliterate the ball.
Since Johnson’s appointment as British prime minister this week, the many examples of his sporting mishaps – clattering into a young boy in Japan in a photo-opportunity, scything Maurizio Gaudino in a charity football match, flailing and falling in his mayoral suit at some tug-o-war – have been circulated as vivid evidence of his general buffoonery.
We were supposed to laugh at him, to shake our heads at his poshness, his hopelessness.
But no political figure has used the backdrop of sport with such artful cleverness, at least not since the Kennedy brothers threw a football around their garden in Hyannis Port while someone with a Super 8 camera preserved their tanned and toothy chino’d appeal until those images came to represent a mirage of America’s lost future.
For Boris Johnson, games were always just another extension for his belief that everything, always, is a competition, a game.
In those photo opportunities we are invited, not least by Johnson himself, to view him as inept and clumsy and foolish every time he gamely has a go. But look more closely. Something striking always happens to Johnson’s face when he takes hold of a ball or a racket or engages in televised arm-wrestling contests; when there is the chance to win any physical contest.
The perpetual amused grin falls away. The lower jaw juts out. He becomes, perhaps for the only time in his public life, entirely serious and fully engaged with the task in hand. His helpless desire to entertain is set aside. It wasn’t by holding back that Johnson broke his nose four times playing sport at school. He is locked into the contest of the moment, however trivial.
There’s a startling photograph taken of the split second before Johnson, clutching a miniature rugby ball in his hand, accidentally smashes through that poor 10-year-old Japanese boy in Tokyo.
We only see the child from behind so have to assume that he is torn between paralysing terror and an urgent realization that he needs to remove himself from the path of this maniacal, gargantuan westerner whom he’d been assured was some sort of dignitary.
Johnson, though, from the expression on his face, could be in Twickenham and gunning for the try line in the varsity match, trying to sell his opponent the sidestep – which causes him to lose his balance and skittle the unfortunate child.
The reason that he gets away with it is that Johnson has been ingenious at persuading the public, through sport, to view him as a perpetual child in his own right – a huge over grown adolescent, perhaps; a unique visual concoction somewhere between Just William and Paddington Bear.
How often, in his many episodes of private and personal calamity when the photographers were camped out his home did the cameras ‘happen’ upon Boris returning from a morning run in some ridiculous get-up- a bandana, odd football socks, swim shorts, battered trainers, all of it thrown-together with the utmost care but reminiscent of a child who literally didn’t know how to dress himself.
I remember being on a train going to Olympic Park in Stratford one morning when Johnson stepped into the carriage. It was striking how many of Londoners began to smile and sit up as soon as the mayor came on board, smiling his amused and inscrutable smile.
The people were entertained by his mere presence and he knew it and before alighting, he made a show of confusion as to whether the doors would open for him before heading off to the games with the people. He had no need to take the train, of course.
But as London’s mayor he was the figurehead of an Olympics that, despite a year of fear-mongering and alarming predictions had, unexpectedly, proven a thundering success. The games transformed London for that fortnight.
That the Olympics coincided with Johnson’s term as mayor was blessed luck and he wasted none of its potential for exposure. There was Boris in Beijing for the official Olympic handover cheerfully claiming ping-pong as having been “invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century” as an amusement called whiff-whaff.
“And I think there you see the essential difference between us and the rest of the world,” he mocked.
“Other nations – the French– saw a dining tale and saw an opportunity to have dinner.”
The abiding image of Olympic Boris is the Union Jack waving patriot trussed up on a zipline; another photo opp’ gone uproariously wrong. A year later, Pippa Middleton, sister of the future queen of England, challenged Johnson to a game of ping-pong in her column in the Spectator.
“I’m informed that Boris Johnson, former editor of this magazine, wants to be whiff whaff world king even more than he wants to be prime minister,” she wrote.
Old school tie
That was in 2013, three years before Brexit turned the land upside down and before anyone truly considered Johnson as plausible prime ministerial potential. As it turned out, no political commentator could have prophesied the future as nimbly or as chillingly as Pippa. “World king” was what Boris told his family he wanted to be as a child. Whiff-whaff world king; political world king: what did it matter? In their rarefied world, the games and prizes were inter-changeable and equally up for grabs.
Over the past few days, millions of people on both sides of the Irish Sea have been wondering how Johnson has pulled this off. Renewed attention has turned to the old school tie. Yet again, Eton has managed to produce a prime minister.
There’s a sad and fabulous diary piece by James Wood recently published in which he recalls the class-distinctions of his years at Eton even as he looks on despairingly at the number of his former school mates now at the epicentre of the Brexit tragedy.
David Cameron was memorable to him precisely because he made such a faint impression. Jacob Rees Mogg stood out from day one: “He was four years below me, notorious as soon as he arrived, because he never seemed young.”
But Boris bestrode the corridors as a colossus, blithely convinced that the world was his to devour.
“The bigfoot stoop (he was known as ‘the Yeti’), the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from some protective institution; all was already in place.”
That’s the figure who flailed and thwacked and crashed his way through dozens of staged sports moments and into the subconscious of the British public, disarming everyone as he went.
Nobody has ever used the theatre of sport more deftly as he plotted an unorthodox and untraceable path to the highest office in the land; the class clown, the hapless sportsman, of whom everyone failed to understand that the joke was on them until it was too late.
Not even Federer, the supreme illusionist, could do that with a racket.