Why must our sporting idols be nice?

Desire to place the highly successful on a pedestal does no one any favours.

I was at the O2 last week to witness one of the great spectacles in sport as Roger Federer dismantled Janko Tipsarevic in little over an hour, barely breaking sweat in the process.

What struck me however, apart from the incredible beauty of the 31-year-old’s game, was the sheer noise that accompanied his every move. Had someone told me that I had somehow lost myself in the arena’s vast upper tier for four weeks and emerged during one of The Rolling Stones’ sold out gigs at the end of the month I wouldn’t have doubted them.

I have watched Federer play in this country a number of times now and each time I do I am amazed at the incredible level of popularity that follows the Swiss everywhere he goes. As Andy Murray found out at Wimbledon on in July and again on Sunday night, patriotic fervour has nothing on Federer’s universal charm.

Elite sportsmen attracting widespread adoration is hardly groundbreaking or newsworthy, but the almost cult like following that Federer enjoys verges on the unnerving.

I have lost count of the amount of people who, like characters from the Gillian Cross novel The Demon Headmaster, have trotted out the same lines about how classy the Swiss is, both on and off the court- the words “humble” and “great” following not far behind.

I would, from a pure sportsmanship perspective, severely dispute this assertion but what is it about players, be it in single or team events that fans care so desperately as to whether or not they are nice human beings?  

It seems that we want to feel that despite all of the scarcely unbelievable successes our heroes enjoy, at the end of the day when they take off their boots and throw down their kitbag they are just like you or me.

In fact, the more successful they are, the more desperately this emotional link is sought after.

When Tiger Woods burst onto the golf scene at the 1997 Masters, romping to his first major win at the age of 21, the story was of a charming college graduate with an unbreakable bond with his father Earl. When Lance Armstrong won the first of his seven tainted Tour de France titles, many journalists were prepared to ignore the doubts surrounding the legitimacy of his victory and chose to focus on the medical miracle. It was if they too needed to believe in something perfectly accessible.

If we revisit Federer for a moment, I am not for a moment comparing his conduct to that of Woods or Armstrong but I cannot be alone, for example, in noticing his crass speech after winning the Wimbledon title in 2009.

The victorious Federer, a then six time winner of tennis’ most prized trophy, tried to pretend, or honestly believed, that he knew how Roddick, a three time runner up, was feeling. The American’s bewildered facial expression said it all.

As Roddick began to come to terms with the fact that he had won the most service games ever captured in a Wimbledon final only to come up short again, Federer unfurled a new wardrobe already emblazoned with details of his most recent triumph.

Later in the year, as he let a two sets to one lead slip against Juan Martin del Potro, Federer was involved in a flashpoint with umpire Jake Garner and was fined for swearing in an exchange with the official.

His tears at the 2009 Australian Open - what now must be seen as a shamefully self pitying gesture in response to losing three consecutive major finals to Rafael Nadal. If there were "first world" tennis problems, Federer had them.

Yet despite all of this, the Swiss was still handed the ATP’s "Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award" for the year. The yarn of nicety was one too good to stop spinning.  

Andrew Castle often notes that Federer had a fiery temper as a teenage junior as he struggled at times to mould his incredible talent into a world conquering force. “What changed?” the former British number one often muses.

Well, winning of course. It is not difficult to be gracious in victory and, more often than not, Federer has his ATP brand friendly platitudes mastered perfectly. The BBC even used the clipped quotes from a victorious Federer to justify their assertion that Andy Murray would one day win a major title of his own.

But look deeper. When losing his biggest matches and in career defining defeats Federer has lacked all of the class that supposedly sets him apart as a human being.  That evidence is everywhere.

The reality Federer is no better or worse than the vast majority of players on tour, he just wins more than most. He breaks equipment and swears on microphone just like everyone else, however, because of his supreme level of performance across a decade, there are many who are desperate to set their man on a pedestal in order that they can identify with their idol.
The logic seems to be that if they can label him an all conquering everyman and hero, his remarkable string of achievements become easier to understand and digest.

It is the same emotion that compels many to begin writing Federer’s sporting obituary as if, at 31, he has spent 13 sedentary years since turning 18 mixing hit and giggle tennis with a rock and roll lifestyle. This desire to understand works both for and against the 17 time major champion.

Once a trust has been lost, as Woods and Armstrong have found in recent times, it is lost forever, but whilst an illusion of niceness and level headedness remains, fans will defend their heroes to the hilt.

It is for these reasons that I have always found figures like undefeated American boxer Floyd Mayweather the perfect antidote to this desire for niceness. His flaws as a human being, of which there are many, are such that no commentator would ever accuse him of being a crowd favourite but the 34-year-old is a phenomenal talent who knows how to put on a good show.

He invites Justin Bieber to guest star amongst his entourage and, at a time when the ATP try and encourage their combatants to talk respectfully about wealth and privilege to make them more accessible to the average fan, Mayweather takes his laptop around his $10m house to show off his array of supercars and female companions to US soldiers posted in Iraq.  

This may not be classy behaviour but it ensures that we enjoy Mayweather for his ability alone and do not get caught up in linking sporting wealth to moral fibre or personal likeability. After the wealthiest fighter in the history of the sport beat Miguel Cotto earlier this year to protect his perfect record as a professional, he spent 87 days in prison for battery. The lines between professional perfection and personal fallibility could not have been more starkly drawn.

Closer to home, the freedom afforded football figures like Ashley Cole, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez after being written off as morally bankrupt at various stages of their careers, has  actually been beneficial. After all, it is hard enough being a world class sportsman without having to be everyone’s favourite personality too.

It is busting this compulsion to box our idols into a more accessible category that takes a massive weight off the shoulders of the athletically gifted and allows them to focus on what we love them for most.

Perhaps Roger Federer should shun his moral compass for the 2013 season and alienate some of his loyal fans with an ill-advised outburst. He might just relish the freedom.  
 

Is Roger Federer as nice as we think he is, or does he just win a lot? Photograph: Getty Images

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Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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