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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle