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What sportsmen with Messiah complexes can learn from Iniesta’s espresso run

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The ability to get what he wants with unerring consistency is the hallmark of a great sportsman. And yet believing that you always get what you want is the mark of an immature human being. That tension faces every professional sportsman. Life tugs in two opposite directions: your day job demands honing the delusion of total control. Grown-up “civilian” life depends on accommodating and often subordinating your own wishes to the needs of people around you. So the well-adjusted elite sportsman must nurture both a child and an adult, each growing apart from the other, within one personality. It’s hard – which is why many sportsmen just don’t bother. They settle for the child.

Sportsmen turn wish-fulfilment into a profession. This serve is 100 per cent certain to be an ace. I am hitting the next ball for six. This putt is heading straight into the back of the cup. No what-ifs, no doubts: it will happen, it has to happen, simply because I have decided that it will. From visualisation to instant gratification: that is the journey they seek to master. Within the narrow domain of sport, there is nothing wrong with honing this attitude. The problem comes when it bleeds over the boundary rope.

This point is usually completely ignored. Instead, it is assumed that the sporting mindset, far from being essentially childish and regressive, is ideally adapted to grownup living. That is the foundation of the motivational books and speeches that put millions of dollars in Lance Armstrong’s pockets. If only we could all be a bit more like champions, then everything would be fine.

The willpower delusion is not always founded on fraud; naivety can be enough. When he was a footballer, Kevin Keegan explained his interest in going into politics. “All that power they’ve got,” he exclaimed (I’m paraphrasing slightly). “Politicians . . . businessmen . . . If only we could do something positive with it!” It was as though the economy could be turned around by a charging run into the penalty box, political life reformed by some good marking at a corner.

We should remember these illogical leaps when considering sport’s alleged crisis. Sport, we hear, is in moral collapse, its icons in disgrace. First came the fall of Tiger Woods, whose father wanted him to be the new Gandhi. Then followed Lance Armstrong, who was doped to the gills while lecturing us to beat cancer through iron willpower. And now Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee and Paralympic medallist, faces charges of premeditated murder.

These three stories, apparently, have shaken our collective faith in sport. Not mine. Perhaps I was just lucky. I was never drawn to any of them in the first place. The demise is long overdue: the delusion that being good at sport makes you good at life, the fantasy that someone who overcomes incredibly long odds in sport is necessarily an honourable and inspirational human being.

Pistorius’s defenders have deepened the error by arguing that his firing four bullets into his beautiful girlfriend should be seen within the broader context of his achievements as a role model. What is this small matter, the implication follows, compared with overcoming disability?

They also object to the scrutiny of Pistorius’s behaviour inside sport. The South African reacted furiously to losing the 200m (T44 category) Paralympic final, accusing the winner, the Brazilian Alan Oliveira, of gaining an unfair advantage. Pistorius alleged that his rival’s long prosthetic blades afforded him an improperly extended stride pattern. Unfortunately, his own argument invalidated the case Pistorius has used to pursue acceptance in able-bodied competition: that he gains no advantage in terms of stride pattern.

Pistorius wasn’t even correct about his facts. Oliveira took 98 steps (2m per stride) compared to Pistorius’s 92. In fact, Oliveira was simply outdoing Pistorius at his own game – the lightness of his blades allowed him to take more frequent strides than any able-bodied sprinter could ever achieve.

That Pistorius is a bad loser with a deep sense of entitlement does not make him a murderer. Nor is he incriminated by being an angry man who loves guns. But the fall of Saint Oscar? You must be joking.

The sportsmen I most admire belong to a very different tradition from Woods, Armstrong and Pistorius. They resist the Messiah- complex that so often afflicts spectacularly good sportsmen.

I am thinking of athletes such as Roger Federer, Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta, and the former Indian batsmen Rahul Dravid. If you think my list is skewed towards elegant sophisticates, add Paul Scholes, whose understated brilliance for Manchester United was rarely accompanied by delusions of grandeur.

All of them, I suspect, are able to distinguish sport from life, to retain a measure of normality alongside exceptional talent. A stranger in a Barcelona café once mistook the unassuming Iniesta for a waiter. Far from being affronted, the midfielder took the order and returned from the kitchen with an espresso.

When I played cricket with Dravid, his most striking gift was combining deep cricketing confidence alongside genuine humility in other areas of life. The same applies to Federer. He has noticed, not surprisingly, that he is unusually good at tennis. He has also noticed that tennis is not the same thing as life. He believes he is normal in most areas of life, while being very special in a very few areas. These sportsmen protect an island of specialness within a sea of normality.

So does sport really build character, as the old cliché holds? Not if you believe that the self-certainty and sense of destiny that you take onto the pitch translates perfectly into life. I want, I get; I want, I get; over and over; more and more.

That is only good training for life if the role you aspire to is that of a perpetually enraged three-year-old.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes