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Friday, 2 February, 2001, 19:02 GMT
Sport in its purest form
MacArthur: 'Bigger than any football star'
MacArthur: 'Bigger than any football star'
BBC Sport's Rob Bonnet salutes Ellen MacArthur as she endeavours to sail single-handed around the world in the Vendee Globe race.

Confession time.

I know as much about yachting (or is it sailing? - there, I don't even know what to call it!) as I do about how satellite phones work or why God made sharks.

But I know what I like, and I like Ellen MacArthur.

Just in case you don't know who she is, (a distinct possibility before the back pages temporarily dropped their obsession with football and caught up with her on Monday) let me tell you.

Ellen MacArthur is the 24-year-old from landlocked Derbyshire who at the beginning of the week became the first woman ever to lead the Vendee Globe single-handed round-the-world race.

Soaring spirits

Dodging the ice-floes in the Antarctic and forced into a number of limb and mind-numbing running repairs, she'd been over 600 miles off the pace in the Southern Oceans.

But by the time the race got to the equator at the beginning of the week, she'd made up all that distance and had overtaken the previous leader Michel Desjoyeaux of France.

Since then, she's slipped back to second. But when I spoke to Ellen on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, Day 84 of a race that last time went to 105 days, her spirits were anything but becalmed.

I'd made contact five minutes before the 7.35am transmission just to introduce myself and get a feel for the interview. The usual, blindingly predictable question formed on my lips.

Ellen enjoys the beautiful surroundings
Ellen enjoys the beautiful surroundings
"So, Ellen, what's it LIKE out there? Describe the scene for me."

"Empty, vast and dark, save the stars above," she said. "I just can't begin to describe how beautiful it is".

This was a humbling moment.

There I was in the warm safety of a London studio, with no deeper concern than whether the phone link might drop out before transmission.

And there she was, alone in the Atlantic's cold darkness, surviving on her wits, freeze-dried food and hour-long snatches of sleep.

She'd won the race leadership, then almost immediately lost it - her mind was doubtless filled with a thousand concerns about the weather, the currents, her boat and her fellow-competitors.

Determination and ambition

And yet calmly, even poetically, she's painting a word picture of the universe in all its grandeur!

What's more, this was to a media man whom she'd never met but who just wanted a piece of her for three minutes.

And who'd probably be leading with the football again tomorrow. (He did).

Five minutes later she was on the air saying much the same in much the same way - about her determination and ambition and yet also about her clear-sighted understanding that a top-five place in this most gruelling of races would be a wonderful achievement.

Stan Collymore
Collymore's transfer: Typical sporting fare

Let's sample the week's other sports stories.

West Ham fans attack David Beckham and his family as they leave Old Trafford: Beckham denies spitting incident.

England winger Ben Cohen gets death threats ahead of the big Six Nations match in Cardiff.

Stan Collymore: will he or won't he leave Bradford for Oviedo?

Stories of violence and menace, plus the tittle-tattle that nourishes our obsession with the 'minor personality'.

Sport for sport's sake

Ellen MacArthur might be regarded as a minor personality in the grand 'Hello/OK Magazine' scheme of things, but she and her fellow sailors are bigger than any footballing superstar I've ever heard of.

I don't want to over-romanticize, but isn't this sport in one of its purest, most noble forms?

Skill, competition and physical demand, plus strategy, endurance and no little courage? Sounds like sport for sport's sake to me.

Money plays its part of course - you don't sail round the world for free - but I doubt Ellen MacArthur is demanding squillions per week via a shady agent or even a dodgy passport.

She doesn't have to run the yobbish gauntlet... just the elements.

And what's more, she's composed, lucid and full of enthusiasm when projecting her sport in mid-tack to the public.

God's speed Ellen!

Ellen MacArthur in the Vendee Globe race

Home-coming heroine

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See also:

23 Jan 01 | Sport Front Page
17 Jan 01 | Sport Front Page
15 Jan 01 | Sport Front Page
06 Jan 01 | Sport Front Page
02 Jan 01 | Sport Front Page
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