We ask our sporting stars to be many things at once - “the package”. We apparently want them to be successful in their chosen sport, ALL of the time. We also seem to want them to be good role models such that they behave in a manner that seats them comfortably on the moral high ground - ALL of the time.
We don’t want to hear about the details or the reasons why they aren’t perfect. We criticise them for what we see - out of context. If George Gregan’s Wallabies don’t win, then we criticise a selection of Gregan’s personal statistics that support our opinion and question whether he should remain as Wallabies captain. If Ricky Ponting’s team looks like they may lose the Ashes, then we criticise his ability to captain a successful team. We don’t care that any of the remaining 14 or 10 players may not have done their job brilliantly, and we wouldn’t place such scrutiny on “form slumps” if the teams were winning. Never even mind that a win or loss doesn’t occur in a vacuum - there’s always a competitor.
We want perfection.
But what is perfection? Do we even know what it is we want these people to achieve on and off the sporting arena? And if they ever did attain that elusive perfection would we feel robbed? After all, aren’t the criticism and dissection of performances, and the ability to gloat when our team wins one of the highlights of a “sports fan’s” experience?
Whether or not we believe that a high profile should generate income for athletes, sponsors, investors, punters, media owners and so on, the fact of the matter is it does. Rightly or wrongly, it’s also true that fans and politicians benefit from the success of high profile teams they align themselves with. This benefit may be financial, or it may be emotional. The aura of success and national pride and so on that a win in sport can generate can be and regularly is, exploited by public figures to enhance their own image.
The drawing power lies in the high profile factor, not in the success alone. Anna Kournikova is an example of that. Some success is a necessary ingredient to bring an athlete to the attention of the public and the sponsors, but it isn’t enough on its own.
Quite frankly we barely recognise athletes who just plug away at training and quietly go about winning their events. They need to be controversial or beautiful to be intriguing to us.
Perhaps the power and influence of a sporting hero or heroic team has something to do with “sex sells”, and the idealism of youth and good health. The connotations surely can’t hurt.
Print media headlines claimed Australia even forgave Shane Warne his extra-sporting indiscretions when he claimed his 600th test wicket in the Poms’ own backyard.
Image is perhaps not everything, but it’s an awful lot. An image is what sells - and image is what the public knows. Reality and harsh truths are hidden at least in part, but the public sees an image that is presented to them in a format that may be mistaken for being a candid diary.
Fans want success - but consistent success. An athlete that is too close to perfect, can arouse suspicion and resentment. Look how the public jumped on Grant Hackett’s star performance at the Montreal swimming world championships in July. Headlines were asking us “Ian who?” and questioning whether Hackett was the new Thorpe. Why are we so quick to knock Thorpe off his blocks? There’s room enough up there for both of them, and many more.
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