From Hero to Zero: Why Being a Sporting Legend Isn’t Just About Performance

Tennis heroes?

This morning, Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in jail for culpable homicide. Regardless of personal opinion, there is no doubt that in the eyes of the media, and for many sports fans, the ‘Blade Runner’ has definitely gone from hero to villain. I’m not interested in passing judgment on the actions or personalities of Pistorius and the other sportspeople I will write about here. I should also mention that I’m not trying to directly compare any of them. The issue I am interested in is how and why we make and break sporting heroes. Why is sporting heroism about more than just performances on the field?

The downfall of South Africa’s most heroic athlete began eighteen months ago, when the events surrounding Reeva Steenkamp’s death were revealed in the media. Hundreds of thousands of column inches and tweets have subsequently been written, but whether you agree with the court verdict or not, none of the events of 14th February 2013 mean that the achievements of Oscar Pistorius on the track can be denied. He has won six gold, one silver and one bronze Paralympic medals and at London 2012 he became the first amputee runner to compete at an Olympic Games. As Justice Malala wrote in The Guardian only days after Steenkamp’s death was reported, “To be without legs, and to become the epitome of excellence in the very field where you are not supposed to excel: that is the stuff of legends.” In South Africa, Pistorius was a uniting force – an important and inspirational role model in a proud country whose sporting, political and social history has at times been sad and violent. This fallen hero’s athletic achievement has now been violently overshadowed – and his legend will be defined – by sad events a long way from an athletics track.

I mentioned it earlier, but I’ll reiterate – I’m not trying to directly compare the different sportspeople I will talk about here. The common thread amongst these athletes is their level of performance and their competitive achievements. Let’s move on to another sportsperson who has been in the news in recent days. Serena Williams is considered by many to be the greatest female tennis player in history. Her amazing list of achievements includes winning eighteen Grand Slam singles titles. She has also held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously in both singles and doubles. Roger Federer holds fewer Grand Slam singles titles (seventeen) and has never held all four at once. The purpose of this information isn’t to persuade you about which of these players is greater. The point is, despite the irrefutable facts about her tennis performance, Serena doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of popularity or support of Federer. Without going into too much potentially controversial detail, there could be other factors at play: women’s sport is given less attention and kudos in general (I’m not setting my bra on fire, I’m just stating fact…) and Federer has been involved in one of the greatest eras of rivalry in men’s tennis. I think it’s probably simpler than that, though. Essentially, the public just doesn’t like Serena as much. She has been involved in controversies about gamesmanship and a lack of respect towards opponents and officials. She has been criticised for putting fame and fashion ahead of her tennis. Her power and athleticism are seen as an unfair advantage over the women she defeats, rather than as a result of dedication and hard work. Meanwhile, Federer is seen as a gentleman and a family man. He looks graceful in play and comes across as gracious in both victory and defeat. The judgments people make about his character and his demeanor translate onto their judgments of his greatness. I’ll level with you – I prefer watching Federer. But that doesn’t mean I think Serena isn’t phenomenally good – she is.

We have an idea that we want our sporting heroes to be ‘nice’ as well as amazing performers. Many golf fans have spent a long time wanting Tiger Woods to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ record for Major wins. However, when his marital infidelities were revealed in the press in 2009, his status as a golf superstar was undoubtedly damaged. Sebastian Vettel is the youngest ever two, three and four-time World Champion in Formula 1, but after a highly-publicised incident in 2013 when he ignored a team order in order to win a race over his team mate Mark Webber, his winning mentality began to be seen by some as overly competitive and selfish. The constant debate over whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is better doesn’t just concern their football ability. Rio Ferdinand made an interesting point during the Brazil 2014 World Cup – maybe more people take Messi’s side in the debate because he is seen as less arrogant and more unassuming. Maybe Messi is just a little bit easier for people to like.
We are also prepared to forgive talented sportspeople for flaws and cheating if they play for our team. Luis Suarez has been involved in three high profile bans for biting another player. Three! Fortunately for him, he is a supremely talented footballer. His status as a football hero will probably always be tarnished by his toothy indiscretions, but it’s also amazing how strongly the fans and the powers that be at Liverpool, Uruguay and Barcelona have backed him up when he has got himself into trouble. This isn’t a new thing: just think Eric Cantona, Zinedine Zidane, and managers saying “I didn’t see it,” “He’s a great lad, he would never go in to hurt someone,” or “I thought it was overly harsh” about blatant fouls every weekend on Match of the Day.

The possible advantageous long-term effects of doping on an athlete’s performance have recently been discussed in the press as a result of Justin Gatlin’s nomination for the IAAF World Athlete of the Year. But what about the long-term social and psychological effects of doping? Gatlin has previously served two drugs bans and has been closely associated with coaches who have been caught up in doping scandals. He has also won an Olympic gold medal in Athens 2004, and has run six of the seven fastest 100m times this season. Gatlin’s history of cheating (and possibly his attitude to competing and the way he conducts himself in the press) means that other athletes, the media and athletics fans are vociferous and outspoken in their criticisms and dislike of him. Let’s imagine for a moment that doping ten years ago doesn’t give an athlete long-term performance benefits. Let’s imagine Gatlin is just the best sprinter out there at the moment, pure and simple. He still won’t be seen as a hero. In cycling, it has become clear that Lance Armstrong cheated his way to seven Tour de France titles. He was apparently a pretty malicious person at the same time. But he is still the fall guy for the indiscretions of many other professional cyclists. Additionally, yes, some of it was probably dirty money, and no, doing a good thing (whatever your motivation) doesn’t mean you can get away with a lot of other bad things, but I think it’s fair to say that Armstrong’s ‘Livestrong’ foundation has also done a hell of a lot of good for people with cancer and it’s amazing how easily we can forget that. Don’t misunderstand me – I am no fan of Lance Armstrong. Now that the truth has come out, I don’t regard him as a sporting hero. But at least he was trying to do a little bit of good in amongst all that bad.

As sports fans, we are pretty demanding. We want entertainment, drama, glorious victory, gracious defeat and mind-blowing performance. We want to see legends made and records broken. We want winners, we want heroes… but we want Mr Nice Guy too.