I had heroes once as a boy. Posters Scotch taped to my walls, athletes fastened to my heart. How did they do those things? The footballer running with ball glued to foot, the helmet-less cricketer walking out to fast bowler, the twisting diver. I stood on the couch. God, I said; Gods, I thought.
Then I grew up and became a sportswriter and crossed that line that separates us from them. It was a fine education because I am intrigued by what provokes greatness. I travelled in team buses, asked athletes how they kept technique pure under pressure, hung out in the bowels of stadiums as they emerged from contests their bodies still humming with energy.
But something else occurred. On TV, the athlete looked immortal. From 10ft away, the illusion of saintliness was peeled away. These were but ordinary folk with one extraordinary skill. Away from the floodlights, the sweat dried, they often lost their shine. You realize the superhero from your wall has no cape, that you have the good and bad mixed up. Great athlete and good person were not to be confused. Champions, so many suffused with arrogance, could be jerks.
Great expectations: We invested so much in Tiger Woods because he changed the way we perceived golf. Charlie Riedel / AP
The list is long. Every sportswriter has them. A former cricketer, married, winked at me (as a male I was supposed to approve) as he chatted up yet another woman. A millionaire sportsman asked me to pay one half of a bill for two cups of coffee. A former Wimbledon champion told me “f*** off” when I asked for an interview.
Of course, there are decent, gracious people. Athletes, exhausted by defeat, will still scribble autographs. Sachin Tendulkar interrupted his birthday party in Dubai to give me 5 minutes because he knew I was on deadline. Johan Olav Koss, the ice skater, plays a pivotal role in the humanitarian organization Right To Play.
But eventually my admiration for athletes became mostly limited to the field. Heroes when sweaty. I respect their pushing of the envelope of human achievement; I am awed by their skill and spirit. I learn about discipline and commitment. And of course as a sportswriter, I tend to exaggerate all this.
But I rarely go to stadiums expecting lessons in morality. These aren’t arenas of real bravery for this isn’t real life. These weren’t my guides, not my North Stars. My heroes are different, they are ordinary people taking on life, they are my parents, teachers, friends who grapple patiently with troubled kids, they are families who take care of the ill with a selfless love, they are preachers of tolerance.
I have expectations of the athlete, especially the great ones, for with fame arrives responsibility. Certainly he must obey the rules, stay away from gunfights in nightclubs, respect the law, conduct himself appropriately when representing his country. It is not a difficult list. Roger Federer meets it nicely. But not everyone.
But then it gets tricky. What moral standard do we hold the athlete to, a higher one than we have for ourselves? Marriage is beautiful and we are unimpressed by the adulterer, but do we hound them from our groups of friends and from our offices? Is Tiger Woods different, worth such public scorn, because he portrayed himself as a virtuous family man? It would appear so. And as much as the tawdriness of it all, the sheer number of infidelities, what seems to upset people is also the deception. He fooled us, this billionaire hero. He made us buy his shirts while he was taking his off.
What we tend to forget is that the great athlete presents to us an image. On that basis we claim to know him, but we really don’t. Andre Agassi’s revealing autobiography, Open, suggested our view of him was almost entirely inaccurate. Woods is similarly a mystery. We know him as outrageous golfer, bland interviewee, smiling salesman. Beyond that he is hidden. It suited him. His golf was perfect, his trousers creased, his shoes shined, and so he let us assume the rest of his life was as polished. The point is this: He should have known better than to do what he did, but so should we have to have swallowed his myth.
The Woods story is sad, grubby, fascinating. Sports stars have erred before: Maradona took ephedrine, Boris Becker had a tryst with a model on a restaurant’s stairs, Mike Tyson dined on a rival’s ear. But this story dwarfs them. It tell us how enormous a figure he has become, how powerful the Internet is, how voracious our appetite for celebrity is.
I am not surprised by Woods, maybe because I am a sportswriter. But I do have, echoing an Australian friend, “an inexplicable feeling of disappointment”. Maybe because we saw him as promise. This black man who stood tall in a sport that was too white for too long. This nerveless athlete who turned a stuffy sport into a cool one. Perhaps we invested too much in one man. Perhaps parents should just tell kids who Scotch tape posters of athletes to their walls, that these are just sporting champions. But not necessarily heroes.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times in Singapore.
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