This is another of the articles I wrote for the Goteborgs-Posten which was translated into Swedish and published in March this year.
It hasn’t been a good year for sporting heroes. Lance Armstrong finally admitted what just about everybody already knew, though with barely an apology to the people who devotedly followed him and his organisation, partly because he was such a winner and partly because he was such a winner in spite or because of having suffered and overcome testicular cancer. In South Africa there was the spectacle of a bail hearing for Oscar Pistorius, another sporting hero who has succeeded with great disability. He admitted shooting and killing his girlfriend but claims it was accidental, and that he mistook her for a burglar who had locked themselves in the lavatory.
What I want to think about is the matter of ‘role models’, an idea society holds very dear. We expect ‘role models’ to influence young lives, and particularly young lives at risk of falling into crime, despair or apathy. There was a recent advertisement on British television, in which sporting heroes and gold medal Olympians reminisce about their happy and memorable ‘active childhoods’. It ends with David Beckham assuring all us couch potatoes watching him, ‘You never forget an active childhood. At Sainsbury’s we believe every child should have one.’ As far as I know there are no plans by any supermarket chain to advertise the pleasures of reading, painting, writing poetry and playing let’s pretend. ‘You never forget a daydreaming childhood. Every child should have one.’
The first question is whether the whole idea of a role model is a good one. Somewhere in the twentieth century psychology went pop and the analytic notion of familial role models exploded outwards, so that we want children to look outwards towards the notable, rather than look around at the variety of ways of being a human being. Yet do we really want children to confuse fandom with their own search and coming to terms with what kind of life or learning or doing they want for themselves? Don’t spend too much time figuring out who you are and what kind of person you might want to be, just look at David Beckham or Jessica Ennis and wish with all your might that you could do what they do so well that everyone looks up to you, and you get on television, gets loads of sponsors and are always seen smiling, except when the paparazzi get in your face.
So the next question is, if we must have them, why have we decided that sportspeople are the best role models? As far as I know the single important goal of people who take sport seriously is to win, to beat other individuals or teams, to be the best. The best athletes focus absolutely on this one thing that they are good at and for which they happen to have been born with the right body shape or strength, and work day in and day out throughout their youth make their body pitch perfect for a year or two of peak performance. You can see why politicians and others worrying about the youth think this might be a useful trait. It keeps them off the streets, stops them being bored and they don’t ask too many awkward political and economic questions. Of course, the same is true of much gaming in front of the TV, but that has been deemed a bad thing to focus on because it is believed to make people fat and aggressive. Movement plus dedication plus purity of spirit is what is to be valued. But then you discover that Lance Armstrong has not only been doping with exquisite scientific concentration for years, but that he has also bullied and frightened all his team members into doing the same, because they have to support him in order for him to win. It obviously isn’t just Lance Armstrong. Drugs that enhance the body and its performance are used in most sports and probably much more routinely than anyone dares to say. Actually, why wouldn’t you take drugs if they are going to help you win, if winning is the major thing on your mind, and if you know that others are taking drugs for the same reason?
Being competitive and at your physical peak is the whole point of sports. Commentators praise athletes for their determination to win, their dedication to training, and for their supremely competitive spirit. That use of the word ‘spirit’ after ‘competitive’ makes it seem something innate. There’s a whiff of a twisted social Darwinism about it. Fitness it suggests is not just having a more than healthy body, it’s also about possessing an inner will to survive that is greater and can overcome others. Competition, including cooperative team competition, requires that someone else goes down, loses, fails to survive. Apparently it comes naturally, and is honed to a trigger-fine point by the determined athlete. Oscar Pistorius’s father, Henke, gave an interview to The Sunday Telegraph newspaper, at the beginning of his son’s bail hearing. He claimed, as does his son, that Pistorius thought a burglar had broken in, shut himself in the tiny lavatory, and Pistorius had shot him four times through the locked door. It turned out that it was Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend, who may have gone to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Henke Pistorius explained, ‘When you are a sportsman, you act even more on instinct. It’s instinct – things happen and that’s what you do.’ Supposing this was true, even a burglar should not receive a summary death sentence without his or her voice being heard, if only through the bathroom door. If the sportsman’s’ fine-tuned instinct is offered as an excuse for a fatal, wrongful shooting, we really ought to rethink what it is we would like children to admire. And if role models are the best way to encourage them, whether we wouldn’t prefer them to be mimicking people who consciously think about what they are doing, and who, at their best (rather than their bestselling), work to produce well or better over and over again without racing for prominence. Of course, if we ever did want that to be the case, we would probably have to think very hard about whether the world of the arts and sciences were not also mimicking sports in the emphasis on prizes and sales once again to produce winners and losers. That rethink would do us no harm at all.